Sunday, May 20, 2012

Tim Burton's Take on Dark Shadows

When I was a grade school lad back in the late sixties and early seventies, I remember I used to hurry home from school to watch Dark Shadows on ABC. Dan Curtis's supernatural soap opera was the kind of creepy fare that was perfect for a kid spending his afternoons alone while waiting for his parents to get home from work. It wasn't considered cool for a pre-teen to watch the other soaps on TV.  Nobody my age would have thought to tune in to General Hospital or As the World Turns, but Dark Shadows was different. It was a genuine horror tale tracing the misfortunes of the Collins family, setting the story in an old dark house with a macabre name: Collinwood.  I was too young to discern that the series could have been perhaps a Gothic commentary on the Vietnam War, or a social statement on the disappearing New England WASP upper-class. Whatever the cryptic undertones of the series, it was definitely scary business, and it was always played in earnest.  When Barnabas Collins, the patriarchal ancient vampire, (played memorably by the late Shakespearean actor Jonathan Frid) bared his fangs it was to satisfy an unholy appetite.  Nobody laughed, and everyone's eyes were glued to the TV set.  I always made sure that my rabbit ears were picking up the network's signal as flawlessly as possible.

Tim Burton's new film adaption of Dark Shadows is a camp creepshow. The film is not exactly a remake, but more a silly riff on the series.  If we're looking for a remake from the director, I guess we'll have to wait for Frankenweenie, Burton's upcoming stop motion animated full length film, about a boy and his dog, based on his own 1984 live action short.

Using some of the characters and settings from the original series, Burton has transformed Dark Shadows into a stylish vehicle for the talents of his muse Johnny Depp.  The actor plays Barnabas Collins as a resurrected bloodsucker -- his face as white as a Kabuki performer -- constantly marveling at the world of the 1970s where the movie takes place.  This Barnabas is certain that a McDonald's Golden Arches neon sign is a Mephistophelian signature, and that the image on a television set is a stage for diminutive performers.  Very little is played straight, and throughout most of the film the tone is very much tongue-in-cheek.  The film's prologue, which tells the backstory of the rise and initial fall of the Collins family, is the only segment of the movie that vaguely channels the spirit and atmosphere of the original series.

Also appearing in this film are Eva Green as a jilted witch out to get revenge on Barnabas, Bella Heathcote as Barnabas's true love, and Michelle Pfeiffer as Elizabeth, the matriarch of the Collins family.  Also hanging around are Elizabeth's daughter (ChloĆ« Grace Moretz) who has a deep secret that I can assure you not a single intelligent viewer of this movie will care about, and Helena Bonham Carter as Dr. Julia Hoffman (one of the most memorable and popular characters played in the TV series by Grayson Hall).  In this film, however, this character is a two-dimensional caricature who unfortunately has a death scene reminiscent of Shelley Winters's underwater demise in Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter.  This scene, right at the end of the movie, triggers the possibility of a Dark Shadows sequel.  However, since the film has gotten universal poor reviews and earned low box office I have the feeling that Barnabas Collins and company might be put to rest in the family crypt for many years to come.


Anonymous said...

The name of the estate was Collinwood, not Collingwood. Hopefully someone with a serious interest in the original drama will produce a version more in line with all the elements that have spawned a tremendous following of loyal and devoted fans.

Anonymous said...

Ditto the foregoing comment. I happened upon one of the Raiders of the Lost Ark sequels last night and it occurred to me that this franchise was an intelligent and FUN homage to the matinee serials, whereas this Dark Shadows satire was sloppy and inconsequential.