Sunday, May 27, 2012

Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadows?

Upon seeing the trailer for Tim Burton's update Dark Shadows (2012), a friend of mine complained that she had no desire to see a fish out of water comedy made from the old soap opera. I think she called the idea "Encino Vampire." I can hardly improve on that, actually, and I share her sentiment. I have a lot of affection for Dark Shadows, and lord knows, I didn't want to see it "Burton-ized" if that meant losing the elements that made the show fun. It was a Gothic in the way only early seventies horror was gothic, even if it was on a soap opera budget. I approached the movie with more apprehension than usual.

Let me tell you, I don't think I've ever seen a movie so badly misrepresented by its trailer. Ever. Johnny Depp aside, this movie is recognizably descended from the soap opera. Oh, sure, there's some comedy, but it's not appended for the sake of comedy. It's organic. Mostly, it's a Gothic, from its baroque prelude detailing the history of the Collins family to the arrival of Victoria Winters at Collinwood in high October as The Moody Blues "Nights in White Satin" plays over the soundtrack. This is the least "Burton-ish" movie Tim Burton has ever made. Even regular collaborators Helena Bonham-Carter and Danny Elfman aren't their usual selves. They've all sublimated their own personae in the service of the tradition of Dark Shadows, so what you get is a soap opera, condensed into a two hour movie. As with most soap operas, you get extremes of performance and dialogue. How many soap opera villains have hissed "I'll destroy you for this!", and never mind the horror trappings of Dark Shadows. That's just regular soaps. Basically, this is a hot house in which passions are worn on the surface rather than sublimated. Mind you, this is better than a soap, because you have a better quality of actors, MUCH better production values, and you don't have the Scheherezade effect that soaps indulge in, in which they stretch plot points out over multiple episodes or even multiple seasons to keep the viewer hooked. Dark Shadows resolves its sundry plot threads in an economical hundred and thirteen minutes.

The story should be familiar to anyone who remembers the show. In the mid-1700s, the Collins family builds a fishing empire in Maine, becoming basically the area's landed gentry. The scion of the Collins family is Barnabas, for whom the future is bright. He has found his true love in Josette, he has been born to an aborning fishing empire, and he lives in the cavernous mansion, Collinwood, just below Widow's Peak. Unfortunately, he also has a spurned lover in Angelique, who will never relinquish him. Angelique turns to the dark arts to curse Barnabas to a life of undeath, while compelling his beloved Josette to throw herself from Widow's Peak into the crashing surf below. She then incites the locals against Barnabas, and he's entombed in an iron coffin, bound with chains, for two hundred years. He wakes up to a very different world. In 1972, the Collinses still hold sway in Collinwood, but the mansion is almost a ruin. The family business has dwindled to almost nothing in the face of competition from Angel Bay fisheries, which controls most of the Maine coast. The family is headed by Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, and it now consists of her wayward daughter, Carolyn, her no-account brother, Roger, and his son, David, who claims to see his dead mother. Into this mix comes Victoria Winters, a new governess for David. She's fleeing her own demons, but she has a way with David. When Barnabas returns, Victoria catches his eye. She is the spitting image of Josette. Unfortunately, Angelique is still around, too. She's the owner of Angel Bay, and she hasn't forgotten Barnabas. As Barnabas struggles to reassert the family fortunes, she opposes him at every turn. But she offers him a bargain: become her lover again, or be destroyed...

Like I said: it's the same damned story. Where this movie errs, and it's not a small error methinks, is that it shifts its point of view away from Victoria and onto Barnabas. Barnabas is a more effective character when he's a mystery. This movie lays all of its mysteries out up front, which is, I think, a structural flaw. Mind you, I understand that this is a vanity production on Johnny Depp's part: he's a producer in addition to being the film's biggest star, and it was Depp who brought the project to Burton rather than vice versa. A more self-effacing actor would have recognized the strength of the character he's chosen, but Depp isn't that kind of actor. The rest of the cast is uncommonly good. It hurts my brain to think of Michelle Pfeiffer playing a matriarch, but she's at that age, now, I guess, and if anyone is going to sub for Joan Bennett (or Jean Simmons), then Pfeiffer is the actress for the job. Chloe Moretz adds another interesting genre role to her already impressive resume. She seems to have supplanted the Fanning Sisters as the go-to choice for preternaturally gifted young actresses. Her performance here is perhaps a bit mannered, but that's the part she's given. Johnny Lee Miller is a non-entity in the movie, while Jackie Earle Haley as Willy, the groundskeeper, is pretty much an afterthought. Bella Heathcote is also surprisingly nondescript as Victoria Winters. Surprising because it's a role that's essentially a romantic lead. Or not. Where Heathcote is pushed to the margins of the film, Depp gets more than his equal in Eva Green, who rampages through the film as Angelique. Whether it's having punishing rough sex with Barnabas or inciting riots against the Collinses, Angelique is the prime mover of the film's plot and Green plays her as a caustic mix of sexy and crazy. She has the light of madness in her huge eyes.

Visually, Dark Shadows is traditional Gothic rather than Burton Goth. Collinwood itself is a character in the film, and it's of a piece with the crumbling manor from the original House of Dark Shadows spin-off movie. The movie's opening scenes are stock horror historical stuff, but the initial introduction of Victoria as she travels to Collinsport on a train through an autumnal landscape is surprisingly beautiful. I'm also partial to the town of Collinsport. It looks like the Maine I remember from visiting there as a kid (during the 1970s, it so happens). Barnabas Collins himself seems more in line with a Burtonesque sensibility, with his pallor and weird haircut, but he's really the only thing in the movie that screams artifice. I can live with that, really, and I don't mind at least one element of the film tying it to Sweeny Todd or Sleepy Hollow (which are the comparable films from Burton's filmography, as opposed to, say, Beetlejuice).

I mostly enjoyed Dark Shadows, much to my own surprise. I haven't liked most of Burton's recent films, in which he's imposed his own anima over beloved source texts. He doesn't do that here, and the movie is better for it. Given that Burton's films rarely add up as integrated works of art, it's surprising that this film is as coherent as it is. I'm not complaining. There's a surprising ferocity in this film, too. It's not afraid to let blood, which was also a surprise. The horror elements are stronger than I would have guessed based on the trailer. Hell, I even liked the fish out of water stuff, and the gentle parody of 1972 cultural mores. When Barnabas seeks advice from a band of hippies, the movie is having fun at the past's expense. When Barnabas kills them all, the movie is looking forward. It's a nice juxtaposition. I'm a little uncomfortable with the Alice Cooper concert mid-movie, but the event does give the filmmakers a means to insert alums of the original show. The film's other main cameo is Christopher Lee as a salty sea captain, and the movie gives us the rare pleasure of watching Lee play opposite a vampire for a change. These are all little things, admittedly, but little things add up.

So boo to Warner Brothers for trying to sell this film as something that it's not. You deserve the crappy box office. It's your own damned fault. Don't look to the movie when you assign the blame, because the movie is perfectly fine as it is. Release this at Halloween with a proper trailer that represents what's actually in the movie, and you'd have a hit. Don't release this in freaking May opposite The Avengers. Y'all dropped the ball on this one.


Laura said...

"Barnabas is a more effective character when he's a mystery." Yes. Yes. Yes. This is just what I've been saying. It might be a combination of Depp's vanity and the fact that Burton is obsessed with Depp being the sad-eyed misfit/surrogate audience perspective in his films that Depp's Barnabas lacks the mystery, intrigue, and menage of the original. You don't have to make a carbon-copy of the original, but certain elements shouldn't change. I kind of wish the movie had started from that beautiful "Nights in White Satin" segment with Victoria, then introduced Barnabas when he escapes from his coffin, and then we could have flashbacks later on.

That said, I also liked the movie more than I expected to. Yeah, it felt choppy (I hear a lot of scenes were deleted), and sometimes the comic moments did sorta jar, and the script itself left a lot to be desired, and I have some major issues with how certain female characters were represented (not that the original didn't have similar problems with its take on the wimmin'). But Despite the rather numerous flaws, the tone is exactly right for Dark Shadows. And yes, this could be one of my new favorite Elfman scores. The music's perfectly operatic and melodramatic, yet never parodies itself.

However, the biggest flaw that keeps me from fully embracing this movie is what you've mentioned, that Burton diminishes all the characters who aren't Barnabas and Angelique to glorified walk-ons, basically. Obviously one two-hour movie can't delve into each character's personalities as much as the show (not even House of Dark Shadows attempted that). But like you said, with characters like Victoria, you really, really should make the effort. I agree Heathcote can come off as rather wooden, but if she had more scenes I can't help but think we might have seen a little more substance to her work. Her look is just right for this kind of movie, and there were definite moments in my mind where she showed potential as an actress (I kind of got a withdrawn, stoic Jane Eyre vibe from her few scenes, who Victoria's character is based on).

I love the twist they give to Vicki's background, but it almost came in too late in the game, too shoved in. Plus, since we barely (and I mean BARELY) see Josette before she hurls herself off Widow's Hill, we don't have much emotional investment or belief in Barnabas's undying love for her.

Ramblings aside, I pretty much agree that this was a fun movie with a great tone, look, and setting, but I can't help but think of how much better it could have been. I'll certainly be interested in seeing the deleted scenes on DVD.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Laura,

Yeah. There did seem to be a lot missing from the movie. Given that it's running time is just under two hours, I wonder how much of the editorial was out of the hands of Burton and company and mandated, rather, by Warner Brothers. As you say, DVD is made for this sort of thing.

Laura said...

Um, "menage" is a very strange Freudian slip I made up there. Meant "menace," honest!

Mykal said...

Vulvania: Thanks for this. I have rarely been as let down by a trailer as I was for this movie. The glory of the original series was its complete devotion, without a hint of condescension, to Gothic melodrama. The trailer made it look like a smarmy over hip/teenage comedy. I swore a blood oath never to see it, cursed its name, and spit on its grave. I figured another wasted outing for the potentially awesome Depp.

You've convinced me to see it - at least in Blu-ray release.