Saturday, May 13, 2017

SUPERNATURAL? PERHAPS. BALONEY? PERHAPS NOT: TIM BURTON'S DARK SHADOWS MARKS ITS FIFTH ANNIVERSARY



Five years ago this weekend Tim Burton’s updating of Dark Shadows, the gothic/horror-themed soap opera which ran from 1966 to 1971 on ABC and was a seminal influence on a generation of budding horror fans (including Burton), was released on American movie screens, one weekend after Marvel’s The Avengers was still dictating the imaginations (and the wallets) of moviegoers everywhere. Given Burton’s track record with horror comedies (Beetlejuice being the primary example) and collaborations with Johnny Depp (Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Edward Scissorhands), a surprisingly low number of ticket-buyers seemed ultimately to care—the movie, which cost $150 million to make, and undoubtedly a hefty chunk of change more than that to market, would earn back only slightly more than half of that in the United States, though its final take globally came in at around $235 million. There were a few takers among critics, notably Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, Andrew O'Hehir in Salon and, perhaps with a little more ambivalence than the others, Richard Corliss in Time magazine, but overall the reviews tended far more toward the tepid, if not outright hostile side.

My expectations were in the basement, so, as one of those budding horror fans for whom the original Dark Shadows was such a formative experience, when I bought my ticket on that opening weekend five years ago I was surprised and delighted to discover just how accurately Burton’s movie hit my sweet spot. I ended up seeing Dark Shadows about four times, in the company of a couple of good friends who were just as enthusiastic about it as I was, before it was whisked out of theaters along with its burgeoning reputation as one of Tim Burton’s lesser achievements. And on this, the movie’s fifth anniversary, I’ve been jonesing to see it yet again. So, I decided it might be a good time to revisit my original review, posted on Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule on June 2, 2012, in the hopes of stoking those flames for myself and perhaps piquing the interest of someone who might have been passing on Dark Shadows ever since then because of all those grumpy reviews. Here’s what I had to say about Tim Burton’s impassioned, jokey yet strangely reverent, surprisingly personal visit to Collinwood Manor.

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Modern movie trailers usually don’t involve the blaring hyperbole of old Hollywood hucksterism-- The SINGLE most SEARING and SENSUAL SAGA ever to SWEEP across the BIG SCREEN!— or especially the blatant three-card-Monte-style deception of exploitation trailers like those from the glory days of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. (Every obsessive with a computer terminal is watching too closely these days for anyone to get away with that.) But even the best of today’s advance previews for big studio product often share a very similar aroma of desperation with those classic cinematic con jobs—the real difference, beyond a certain level of technical sophistication, of course, is that the stakes are often much higher, with the future financial viability of studios (or at least their executives) hanging in the balance. So, marketing departments, never the industry’s most risk-taking branch, tend to go bananas trying to pack every single element that might appeal to the film’s target demographic, especially if the movie is effects-heavy, into one 2.5-minute tracing of the movie’s entire narrative arc, sensitivity to spoilers and variances of tone be damned. (Can you imagine how this movie might be sold to today’s A.D.D.-addled audiences, as accustomed as they are to advance exposure to a movie’s every narrative secret?)

And sometimes a trailer is so accurate to the experience of watching the movie that 2.5 minutes is all anyone could be reasonably expected to endure—expanded to feature length, watching the same image-splintering rate of editing for two hours plus, enhanced by Hollywood’s most up-to-date ear-searing sound, can begin to feel like staring into a strobe light from inches away while seated on a crowded airport tarmac. (I submit to you Armageddon.)

And speaking of a trailer’s presumed relationship to the thing it is promoting, the Twitterverse, that harsh realm of snark, self-righteous acrimony and instant judgment, is a place where the release of a movie’s preview is evaluated with as much scrutiny as the movie itself, often sealing prejudicial points of view like mosquitoes in amber once the film is finally released, despite the possibility that the preview may not accurately convey the experience of actually seeing the movie itself. Certainly, the reception of the trailer for 2012’s John Carter exacerbated that bottom line-busting feature’s (unwarranted) bad buzz and fiery demise, and one could have been forgiven for assuming The End Was Nigh based on all the apocalyptic proclamations and Internet-equivalent traipsing around in sackcloth and ashes upon first look at the trailer for The Three Stooges. (The Four Horsemen were nowhere near the theaters where I twice saw the Farrelly Brothers’ slapstick tribute to the original Stooges. And it turned out that the movie was hilarious.)


So, when the trailer for Dark Shadows was unleashed about a month before its May 11, 2012, release there was plenty of wailing and gnashing of teeth, and I was right at the front of the line of vocal worriers. The original show, produced by Dan Curtis, was a gothic soap opera which ran from 1966 to 1971-- after a tepid first year it gained unprecedented popularity by introducing to its cast Jonathan Frid as the vampire Barnabas Collins, who would spearhead the show’s move into all-out Hammer-influenced horror and suspense over the rest of its run and himself become an unlikely object of all sorts of pre- and post-adolescent passion. But many of us who carried fond memories of running home after school in a desperate attempt to not miss a single second of the series felt stunned and woefully let down by the trailer for Tim Burton’s new movie which, after a suitably atmosphere-drenched beginning, devolved into a mirthless and desperate minute and a half’s worth of wacky gags revolving around the attempt of a 200-year-old vampire (now played by Johnny Depp) to adjust to the glowing lava lamp-lit world of America in the early ‘70s. I had to admit that based on what I saw in the trailer, I could hold out little reasonable hope that this new take on Dark Shadows would be one that I would value or appreciate, and I carried those apprehensions with me as I took my seat on opening weekend.
  

Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows begins with the sound of flutes which cascade off of Danny Elfman’s mournful orchestration like bitter rainfall-- the one musical motif in the score directly attributable to the TV show's original composer Robert Cobert-- and Johnny Depp’s voice, wave-shifted into a resonant replica of Frid’s sonorous British-tinged inflections, intoning, as the camera sweeps over a picturesquely dank and fog-enshrouded 18th-century Liverpool, “It is said that blood is thicker than water,” invoking the two liquids with which the protagonist will soon become tragically familiar on the coastal rocks beneath the cliffs of the aptly named Widows Peak. Barnabas, the son of a wealthy entrepreneur who moves his family from England to America’s Northeast to establish a foothold in the fishing industry, dares to spurn the obsessive attentions of a lovely but intense chambermaid by the name of Angelique Broussard (Eva Green)-- who happens also to be a witch with a nasty vengeful streak. Angelique compels Barnabas’ true love, Josette (Bella Heathcote), to suicide, and he himself is cursed with eternal, bloodthirsty life as a vampire at her hand. With the help of the town’s easily manipulated torch-bearing mob, she arranges to have her would-be lover buried alive, setting up a none-too-comfortable 200-year confinement in which he must contemplate his punishment and suffer his newfound cravings.

At this point, Dark Shadows shifts gears and segues forward to what turns out to be 1972, but what’s immediately apparent is that the transition is not going to be as jarring as that trailer seemed to promise. (The blissfully rich cinematography, which also spans the centuries, comes courtesy of Bruno Delbonnel, who shot Amelie, A Very Long Engagement, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Inside Llewyn Davis.) The melancholy of the movie’s opening is somehow extended over 200 years by helicopter shots of a northbound Amtrak train snaking through the woods, and the music guiding the train is not Elfman’s signature evocations of the fearful regret buried in Cobert’s original score, but instead the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin,” which turns out, in this age of classic rock abuse, to be a perfectly sublime choice. 

On the train is a dead ringer for Josette, Victoria Winters (also played by Heathcote), who is bound for a governess job at the dilapidated Collins family estate—Collinwood—where the remains of Barnabas’s ancestry—Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), her parasitical brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), and their two respective children, Caroline and David (Chloe Grace Moretz and the wonderfully named Gulliver McGrath)—are barely keeping the mansion’s doors open. They have some help, such as it is, from groundskeeper Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley) and Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), the psychologist brought in three years earlier to help David cope with the tragic drowning of his mother, but it’s clear that however haunted by tragedy, the Collins family’s better days seem to be past.


Soon enough Barnabas, unearthed by unfortunate construction workers who end up constituting his first happy meal in 200 years (the carnage is loosed in the golden glow of the movie’s funniest bit of product placement), joins his at-first suspicious but soon tentatively welcoming descendants in an attempt to loosen the stranglehold on the family fishing business held by a rival company, which just happens to be headed by a ruthless businesswoman who bears a luscious resemblance to the vampire’s age-old nemesis. Here the movie settles into its own groove, one marked by the contrast between the Europeanized flavor of Barnabas’ anachronistic manner and language, permeated as it is by the doomed romanticism of his gothic back story, and the laid-back vibe of the Me Decade. It’s a happy revelation when Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (working from a script originated by John August and Grahame-Smith) demonstrate there’s more juice in that contrast than just simple-minded Brady Bunch Movie-style wisecracks and sight gags. 

True, some of those gags wilt rather than blossom, but even so Burton fashions terrific moments out of Barnabas’s encounters with pop culture icons of the day like Super Fly and a certain buzzing Milton Bradley board game, and the wit embedded in Grahame-Smith’s dialogue is often sharper, more off-kilter funny than the goods other filmmakers might have settled for. At one point Barnabas suggests they throw a ball to reassert their family’s prominence in the town. Sullen, stoned Caroline counters that no one throws balls anyone, they throw happenings, ones that have live rock music and plenty of booze, to which Barnabas replies, with his characteristically sonorous enthusiasm, “We shall have spirits enough to fill a schooner’s hull!” (It is told that the low-grade rumble created by Caroline’s epic eye-rolling could be discerned for countless miles down the Eastern Seaboard.)


The movie is of course also in love with that gothic sensibility, a surprising level of which is sustained marvelously by the sets, mixing the dark-wooded, shadowy old world architecture of European influence with shag-carpets, novelty phones and mile-wide lapels to hilarious effect. (The movie's set design is by Rick Heinrichs, who has created, among many other things, a spectacularly creepy/groovy chandelier for the main foyer of Collinwood that, upon closer inspection, looks like a giant crystalline octopus.) And it’s all topped off by a howlin’ wolf chorus of carved creatures that surround the opening of a grand fireplace and signal the opening of a secret passage into one of Collinwood’s deepest, darkest catacombs. But the most surprising thing about Burton’s take on this material is how well integrated the ‘70s comedy is with what amounts to not so much a parody of familiar gothic tropes as a sincere celebration of them, and some of the movie’s best instances of that celebration come in its use of the music of the period.

One of my favorite moments in the entire movie comes when Barnabas, in conversation with the newly sympathetic Elizabeth, sits at the organ and bemoans his curse. He lays his weary head down on the keyboard, and we ready ourselves for a gloriously ominous, full-throated pipe organ chord that will express, in familiar aural terms, Barnabas’s tortured soul. What comes out instead is ominous, all right, only the organ at which Barnabas sits turns out to be one of those electric organs so ubiquitous in the ‘70s, the ones that replaced less-affordable pianos in many homes and featured tacky built-in rhythm machines. The chords accompanying Barnabas’s anguish end up accompanied by a silly computerized conga beat that incongruously, and yes, gloriously underscores all that agony and dissonant passion. Having already mentioned the ghostly appropriateness of the Moody Blues, there’s also Moretz’s hilarious, insinuating slink across the foreground of a family dinner to the strains of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch.” (The use of Barry White’s “You’re the First, My Last, My Everything” during Barnabas and Angelique’s comically violent sex scene falls flat, however, largely because it’s too obvious and it doesn’t similarly link up those two incongruous narrative themes.)



But special mention should be made of the movie’s use of Alice Cooper as the evening’s entertainment at that aforementioned Collinwood happening. Burton fashions what could simply have been a marketing hook and an opportunity for a couple of wryly amusing lines (one of which you’ll be familiar with from the trailer) into a spectacular set piece in which Cooper’s performance of "The Ballad of Dwight Fry" is intercut with not only the action at the dance (which includes, if you look very quickly, appearances by four veterans of the TV series, including Frid, who died one month before this movie was released), but also a flashback to Victoria’s brutally sad, literally haunted childhood, neutralizing for the moment Heathcote’s somewhat recessive presence and suffusing the movie with an resurrected rush of romantic, emotional resonance between her and Barnabas. (It won’t be the last.)

Dark Shadows is a surprise in so many ways, but the lukewarm reaction to it in some quarters begs the question, has Tim Burton begun to wear out his welcome? (This recent parody seems to suggest as much.) Many might agree with one critic I read who wrote that the new movie is a disappointment because “(it) has much more to do with what goes on inside director Tim Burton's head than with any TV show, no matter how beloved.” Which prompts me to pose a question of my own-- Why shouldn’t it? Was not the Monument Valley of The Searchers and other John Ford films largely a product of the director’s romantic imagination, recognizable as it was reiterated by countless other directors in his wake? To be certain, Dark Shadows is an imperfect movie, almost by its nature in its status as a Tim Burton joint. Certainly there’s plenty of evidence here to spark the usual complaints, including the one that suggests he’s more of an art director than a director (the perfect rebuttal to which is that “Dwight Fry” sequence); or that he hasn’t the facility or the interest to tell a straight story, a trait that many diverse, undisciplined and acclaimed filmmakers worldwide share, by the way; or that he’s simply too interested in the candy-colored goblins dancing inside his own skull to the exclusion of everything else. (The movie of Burton’s I find most cloying and overwrought in its bid to draw parallels between its director and its wounded, oh-so-sensitive outsider hero-- Edward Scissorhands-- is the one many count as among his best.)

Also, the general flatness of the Victoria/Barnabas romance in Dark Shadows certainly bears the stamp of a filmmaker who finds it the least interesting element in his brew, and Heathcote, though obviously cut from the Winona Ryder cloth of giant-eyed Burton ingénues (she even looks like the director’s corpse bride), is too bland—when she seems to disappear from the movie near the end, it actually takes a while for her absence to register.

There is probably also two too many scenes between Barnabas and the modern-day Angelique, in which the vampire demands to be set free from her lingering influence—Green’s gorgeous, wild-eyed succubus makes Glenn Close’s Alex Forrest look, well, like Victoria Winters-- although we’re so glad to see Depp and Green playing off each other (more about them in a second) that they conjure a very forgiving mood.

Finally, inevitably, Dark Shadows, like many big-budget Hollywood movies that have come before it and that will certainly arrive right on schedule in its wake, ends up devolving into a special sort of mess, an effects free-for-all, once the third-act warning bell sounds off. During this big, largely nonsensical climax the movie begins to take on a whiff of panic, despite our delight in individual touches and actor moments. (We’re especially ill-prepared for a last-minute revelation involving one of the lead characters, one that makes emotional and hormonal sense but seems to come, at least to this viewer, from some hidden, little-used wing of Collinwood Manor, deeper evidence of which may be on the cutting room floor.)
But overall, and strangely, the movie’s scattershot episodic approach to its narrative, in which bits and pieces of several story notions from the original series get compacted into a two-hour Hammer-infused cocktail, ends up working in its favor as an offhanded tribute to the source material, which was nothing if not often unfocused and usually conjured on the fly, and certainly paper-thin in the budget department.


And about those glorious actor moments. Burton coaxes terrific work from Jackie Earle Haley as Loomis (“It’s October. That’s why there’s punkins.”); Michele Pfeiffer as the moody Collins family matriarch (“But, Barnabas, in your own crazed, mixed-up sort of way, you saved the family!”), though the filmmakers forget to make her character relevant in the second half; Gulliver McGrath, who sells little David Collins’ parental anguish without a trace of precociousness; Chloe Grace Moretz, who seethes memorably as the disaffected Caroline in a way that will be familiar to parents of teenaged daughters of any era; and especially Helena Bonham Carter, who does a great fright-wigged, pill- and booze-ridden evocation of Grayson Hall’s would-be immortal Dr. Julia Hoffman, who becomes seduced by the selfish possibilities in guiding Barnabas to a cure for his eternal malady (“Every year I get half as pretty and twice as drunk.”) Only Miller fails to make much of an impression, and that has everything to do with the fact that the filmmakers haven’t integrated Roger Collins very adeptly into the proceedings and nothing to do with his capability as an actor.


Of course, this is Depp’s movie, and he brings to it his characteristic, well-documented quirkiness, but also a surprising passion that serves as a built-in rejoinder to those who might be at this point suspicious of his penchant for the deliberately odd. Even after the increasingly diminished returns of repeated visits to the Captain Jack Sparrow well, I can’t think of another actor working right now (maybe Woody Harrelson) who so ably combines as Depp does the magnetic qualities of a leading man with the hunger to explore the strange nooks and crannies of character with such attention-grabbing fierceness and, paradoxically, lack of the understandable fear of looking foolish. 

Depp’s Barnabas isn’t a stunt, nor is it just another excuse to dress up in odd clothes and prosthetics for the Burtonesque fun of it. He manages to embody the tension within a character who hasn’t yet surrendered his moral imperative as a man to his supernatural compulsion to kill, in vocal, physical (observe those claw-like bangs) and spiritual tribute to Jonathan Frid, while at the same time keeping in tune with and alive to the comedic tone of Burton’s homage. His blinkered confusion over the time in which he has awakened (“A woman doctor! What an age is this!”) is far more sublime than the joke-packed trailer could ever suggest. (And it also helps that we don’t get exposed to practically all of those jokes in two and a half minutes—the movie clocks in at just under two hours.) This is a glorious performance, exhilarating in its capacity for romantic yearning and sheer silliness, which deserves to spoken of in the same breath as Depp’s Raoul Duke, his Willy Wonka and, yes, his Ed Wood.


But as much as Depp, the element that makes Dark Shadows really soar is the breathtakingly funny work delivered by Eva Green as Angelique, a witch who makes it her eternity’s mission to destroy not only Barnabas but the fortunes of the entire Collins family because of the 200-year-old romantic slight over which she is still seething. Decked out in a blonde wig that is closer to her natural hair color than the darker hue seen in films like Casino Royale and The Dreamers, Green has the luscious complexion and spectacular figure of a movie star, a femme fatale to whom most men wouldn’t mind succumbing. She also has eyes that pop out of her skull in a way that must have sent her groovy ghoulie director into paroxysms of pleasure, and a mile-wide grin that stretches so sensually in its sinister insinuations that the moniker “Sardonicus” might occasionally come to mind. Green’s must be the best, most improbably grand mouth on a comedienne since the heyday of Martha Raye, yet she’s also a classic, haunting beauty, one with, as it turns out, killer comedic instincts. She mixes supernatural sensual entitlement and erotic mystery with superbly weird and hilarious choices—at times she seems literally drunk on both her power and her desire to possess Barnabas, and at times she hits her overextended American accent (she’s French) too hard, which has the effect of a hint at Angelique’s rage being barely contained, twisted into shapes she can’t adequately express beneath the appearance of the cool, modern businesswoman she’s constructed.

Confronting Barnabas, her steely, seductive gaze widens slightly and suddenly we can witness the madness and the obsession inside-- we know she’s no longer seeing her would-be amour or anyone else who happens to be standing in front of her, but only the agonized tease of tortures and curses perpetuated yet still unfulfilled. The logistics of Angelique’s supernatural persona don’t tend to hold much water upon close examination—she’s a witch who at some point along her journey through time has somehow become, literally, a fatally beautiful mannequin—and she’s at the eye of the movie’s overwrought climactic implosion. But it’s crucially wrong, even as subject to CGI as her character eventually becomes, to proclaim that Green’s performance itself, in all its devilishly comic glory, is ultimately reduced to a special effect. Her face cracked like the most sublime eggshell, those burning eyes, the mouth twisted into a final rictus of disappointment and outrage-- those features, which remain to the end under the actress's intelligent control, tell the real story.

We tend to give plenty of credit to actors who conjure mixtures of emotion, humor, pathos and grandeur, but only if they do it in a proper, Oscar-friendly context of sweeping drama or epic biographical exploration. Dark Shadows, on the other hand, is on its gorgeously rendered surface an ostensibly inconsequential, unapologetically entertaining movie, so it may take a few decades (hopefully not centuries) for audiences to recognize the value of Green’s contribution, and Depp’s. They serve as perfect compliments to a cracked director’s latest love child, a swoony, silly, visually resplendent tribute to movies and monsters that are thankfully, like the craving that drives Barnabas Collins himself, still in his blood.


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2 comments:

Beveridge D. Spenser said...

I certainly enjoyed Dark Shadows, but I can see why it got a lot of criticism. It didn't seem to fit together, like it couldn't decide if it was serious or silly, and if silly, what the gag was. But even if the parts didn't fit so we'll, what great parts!

But maybe the biggest problem for Johnny Depp was the shadow of Jonathan Frid. Depp is fine impersonating Ed Wood or Raoul Duke, but I couldn't see him at all as the dignified, terrible Barnabus Collins.

Mike Schlesinger said...

I've often said that if I wanted to teach a college course on how to do everything wrong when it comes to marketing and distributing a movie, I could spend the entire quarter on just this one film. It's a stone masterpiece that will find its audience in time.