Jeff Smith noon, March 8
Dark Shadows FANATIC Reviews the Burton/Depp DS
Let’s get something straight from the get-go: I literally grew up in the shadow of Collinwood. The Rhode Island estate that served as the Collins mansion was just down the road from our somewhat less elaborate New England home. When the original Dark Shadows TV show was just hitting its early stride, I was the perfect age to be sucked into its supernatural vortex.
I’ll even go so far as to admit that I was the little weirdo who showed up for the first day of fifth grade wearing a full Barnabas Collins cape. AND a Barnabas ring that I bought from an ad in Tiger Beat (I would have also carried Barnabas’ wolfhead cane, had I landed the enviable apartment complex paper route that lined the pockets of the town’s resident teen sociopath with enough cash to keep the little shit in sweet tarts and Famous Monsters magazines until the start of his first lengthy prison sentence).
I was, and remain, as devoted to Dark Shadows as I am to most anything else in my life, then and now. I daresay that, if a fire were to break out around me at this very moment, I’d run for an armload of treasures off my ridiculously well-packed DS bookcase-slash-shrine (taking up approximately one third of my bedroom, matched only by the Twilight Zone collection in an adjacent museum-quality display) before grabbing the family photo albums.
So that’s where I’m coming from as a guy who just walked out of a midnight screening of the new Tim Burton/Johnny Depp version of Dark Shadows.
Heck, I’m told that the second most-viewed blog entry I’ve ever posted on the Reader website is my encyclopedically obsessive accounting and review of ALL the Dark Shadows-related projects to come down the pike since the demise of the original series in 1971, from the Gold Key comic books to the original cast audio reunions, DS novels (both the original series and the newer tomes scribed by DS cast members and even famed juvie author SE Hinton), the NBC TV revival starring Ben Cross, and Night Whispers, the audio reading that found 80-something Jonathan Frid playing Barnabas Collins one last time, not long before his tragically-timed death last month, etc etc (you can find my book-length DS essay at http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs... ).
Let me say, then, that the TRAILERS for the Burton/Depp return-to-Collinwood “reboot” made me afraid. Very afraid. And not in the good way, as when I was ten and thought any of my older brother’s friends with dripping muttonchop sideburns was probably a frickin’ werewolf (there, we’ve gotten the obligatory “Quentin Collins” reference out of the way, a good thing since he’s basically MIA from the new movie).
Let me ALSO say that, unlike most of my fellow film critics (a mantle I only wear part-time), I’m neither a Burton-basher nor a Depp-despiser. I happen to think that Burton’s early collaboration with Vincent Price, the stop-motion short Vincent, is one of the ten BEST animated shorts. Of. All. Time. I’d watch Edward Scissorhands most any time, and I even – STILL – totally dig his take on Batman.
Trust me: When the Bat-flicks have been around as long as 007, Christian Bale will be looked upon as the Roger Moore of the franchise, and Keaton the Connery!
And Depp, well, let’s say he’s grown on me since 21 Jump Street. My own barometer of a great movie (at least four stars of five, by the Duncan Shepherd-ometer) is whether I’d give up my valuable time enough to watch it more than once. And I can list over a half dozen Depp movies that fall in that category, including/especially From Hell, Sleepy Hollow, and Cry Baby, which I only recently watched for the FIRST time.
Which brings us (finally!) to my POV on this, this…thing. Yeah, it’s Dark Shadows. Or at least it sports the creepy/soapy patina of a Dan Curtis production (gawd, remember his awesome ‘70s TV movie takes on Dracula and Dorian Gray? Not to mention the Night Stalker and Trilogy of Terror, co-created with Twilight Zone scribe Richard Matheson. But I digress….)
I found myself very pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the first fifteen minutes or so, as the story was being set up. I don’t particularly mind the mixing and matching of original DS elements, like rolling the Maggie Evans and Victoria Winters characters into one similarly ethereal woman (hell, the original show made little distinction between either, nor did Barnabas Collins, who lusted after them both with apparently identical fervor…might as well throw the latterday governess Daphne, played by young Kate Jackson, into the same character stew).
The scene of Miss Winters riding a train into Collinsport, coasting through the selfsame scenic multicolored forests and seafaring coastline where I grew up and set to the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin,” even made me a bit emotional.
Emotional for me not only because my high school sweetheart Lisa Bardwell, who died not long ago from MS, loved the Moody Blues so much she named her only son after singer Justin Hayward, but because virtually every molecule of the movie screen at that (all-to-brief) moment made me yearn for and mourn my own long-lost seventies innocence and sense of limitless wonder. Being the first time I've heard the Moodies since my New England lover Lisa died, I was caught most unawares when my eyes suffered a brief (if cathartic) misting...
Nor did I mind the way-revisionary remix of Barnabas’ vampiric origin story. Don’t worry, no spoiler alert necessary: suffice to say, he still screwed a witch, and the witch screwed him and his entire family in return.
I can even accept Barnabas being infatuated with, and even quoting from, the book Love Story, just one of the many “Hey, look, it’s the SEVENTIES” nails hammered into the cinematic coffin every few minutes. Barney was always a hopeless romantic, rendering him eternally (as the old “Marilyn Ross” Dark Shadows novels’ go-to adjective used to sigh) “melancholy.”
I can NOT, however, reconcile myself to a Barnabas who, on first sight of a McDonalds sign, mere moments after his resurrection from a 197-year interment, assumes the giant ‘M’ stands for the devil Mephistopheles.
The character of Barnabas, as played by Depp, is so utterly humorless that such grimace-inducing guffaws are rendered even more out-of-step with the rest of the movie than the centuries-old vampire is with the unfamiliar era in which he finds himself. And the clueless mocking juxtapositions just keep coming: jokes about being stoned (by rocks) versus smoking a joint, or how the Collins have such big balls (parties, not ‘nads, a gag AC/DC already ran into the ground 30-plus years ago), or how a TV screen featuring the Carpenters performing must be possessed by a tiny songstress (and, be warned, that’s not even the only Carpenters gag in the movie).
However. Jettison the recurring gags (the worst of them featuring Barnabas trying to find a comfortable place to sleep, from inside wall cabinets to an empty refrigerator box emptied of Styrofoam peanuts). Also ignore (if you can, thanks to the temple-throbbing volume of contemporary indoor movie theaters) the frequent musical dips into the very worst of the ‘70s A.M. radio well. Ditch and ignore such foo-hah-hah, and what do you think remains?
A movie that isn’t really all that bad.
For instance, the unkillable four-headed beast that is Burton/Depp/Bonham/Elfman (as in Danny Elfman, former Oingo Boingo frontman) gets the music exactly RIGHT several times, most notably the entire time that Alice Cooper is hanging out at Collinwood. I’m serious! He’s performing at the aforementioned Big Ball, but not the easy-A Welcome to my Nightmare era Alice that Captain Obvious would have all too readily inflicted.
No, Alice is actually doing his From the Inside followup persona and sound, RE the album he did after spending time in a psyche ward. Which (tho the album came out around a half dozen years AFTER the movie’s 1972 setting), is far more apropos for the timeless tale still being woven from the cloth that Dan Curtis cut.
Also not at all bad: Collinwood. Maybe even BETTER than the TV show incarnation, which always looked comically tiny and claustrophobic on the inside, especially for a supposedly sprawling mansion. Certainly better than the Collinwood of the 1971 Night of Dark Shadows movie (which was actually a mansion in Tarrytown, New York). The new movie mansion’s transformation from cobweb-heavy secret passageway-riddled goth dump to shining party pad qualifies the old homestead as practically an uncredited character.
Ditto the way the mansion’s nearby Widow’s Hill draws the rocky waves beneath it into the movie so often, in so many ways, that the foreboding and deadly nexus of ocean and jagged stone also becomes an indelible presence in the film, bringing it into the storyline in an all-encompassing way the original TV show never really pulled off past its iconic opening credits sequence.
As for the actors portraying our old DS friends and fiends, I’d also find it hard to heap much fault. Yeah, it takes a bit of re-thought to accept demure old family matriarch Elizabeth as a meaner, leaner, bitchier and better dressed version of Al Pacino’s squeeze in Scarface (both played by Michelle Pfeiffer).
But lazy old Thurston Howell-wannabe Roger Collins maintains his TV counterpart’s indolence and yellow streak. The dude who played Rorschach in Watchmen (and who took on the thankless Freddy Krueger role in a misbegotten Nightmare on Elm Street remake) plays Barnabas’ lackey Willie Loomis. He's cool 'nuff. Dude's come a long way since bicycling thru Breaking Away (which you'd probably need to be at least my age to even have heard of, despite its well-deserved award-winning heyday).
The little girl superhero from Kick-Ass, Chloe Moretz (probably better known now for Hugo) well plays entitlement-rich (if penny poor) Carolyn Collins, and even frequent Burton/Depp co-conspirator Helena Bonham Carter as Dr. Julia Hoffman holds a similar enough line to her vintage counterpart to make me feel I know who at least some of these darkly tinted doppelangers are supposed to be.
(NO SPOILER HERE, ONLY A HINT: Both Carolyn and Julia even get a big “surprise!” game-changing plot twist worthy of the original show’s hoary cliffhangers, with Carolyn’s about-face being particularly out of left field, tho Julia’s was hinted at too much in an earlier scene, AND any devoted DS fan has long wondered why Julia’s 2012 plot-twist DIDN’T happen during the original series).
Even young master David Collins remains the handy and bland narrative device (never a narrator) that he always was.
The only fly in the casting ointment was whoever that skull-faced pretender was who played the witch Angelique. Sure, Lara Parker, and even Lysette Anthony, are hard acts to follow, but I never once believed that our latterday Angelique could ever have enthralled one as lionhearted as Barnabas Collins. In the past OR in 1972.
As for her witchiness, Angelique Version 3.0 is completely outclassed and outdone even by, say, Billie Burke and Mama Cass (what child of the ‘70s like me could resist a double-barrel pipeload of HR Pufnstuf reference here, after all?).
SOME of the scenes pitting Barnabas against the ‘70s era itself were worthy of keeping from the cutting room floor. For instance, the vanload of dimwit hippies who first encounter Victoria Winters, and then old Barney himself. There’s a Dark Shadows book called The Salem Branch by the actress who played the original Angelique, Lara Parker, which has a detestable scene where Barnabas camps out in the woods (on the Collinwood estate!) with a troupe of hippies, even dropping acid and sleeping with a hippie chick (who happens to remind him of Angelique/Josette).
I despise the whole notion of Barnabas and the hippies so much that seeing the grim and oh-so-welcome way that Burton and Barney handle the hippies (whose passed-around joint is turned down by the vampire) is a joy indeed!
I’ll also parcel out some praise for the new movie’s dialogue. Particularly Barnabas. Other than a couple of gag lines, he speaks the exact words that someone who’s been wading in Barnabas-quotes for 40-plus years would expect and even hope him to speak. And, damn it, against all expectation and odds, Johnny Depp (for the most part) reads them in a way that won me over, time and again. Even/especially the last ten minutes or so.
Don’t worry, no ending spoiler here either…tho I WILL say that, considering the open-ended way Dark Shadows went off the air on April 2, 1971 with several HUGE WTF question marks bedeviling us for the next forty effin years, the Depp/Burton ending finally provides a sort of closure (and even explanation) that I never got, not even from the original-cast reunion shows released on CD over the past few years by Big Finish Productions.
Sure, there’s probably at least a half hour of the new movie that I personally would have jettisoned entirely, to keep the feel and look more consistent with the terrific opening sequences. There are no real chuckles in seeing a vampire brush his fangs in a mirror which doesn’t reflect him, and bits like that are more torn from Mad Magazine and the old Spoof comic book (which did a KILLER Dark Shadows parody in an early issue) than from the Dan Curtis productions.
But the REST of the movie, the parts not aiming for the juvenile “humor in a jugular vein” (to again borrow from Mad), well, it was indeed like a visit with at least the offspring of our old Collinsport crew, if not with the original characters that fanatical devotees like me know and love so well.
(BTW, a few of those original characters, or rather the actors and actresses who portrayed them, do make a cameo in the new film, tho it’s maddeningly brief and superfluous. Really, Mr. Burton? For THAT, you dragged poor old night-whispering Jonathan Frid from the brink of near-death, across the ocean?!)
Unlike, say, the new Avengers film, I will indeed be watching the Burton/Depp Dark Shadows a second time. Maybe even a third, or possibly, well, who knows? It’ll never hold a place in my heart like the original, nor even most of the other all-media reboots that’ve come and gone over the years.
I mean, even some of the worst old Gold Key Dark Shadows comic books were better than the nauseating room-busting “love” scene between Depp’s Barnabas and the grinning skull pretending to be Angelique.
But these new folks ARE part of the Collins family, after all.
And, to this kid from the wilds of rural New England, the one who STILL has that Barnabas cape he wore to his first day as a fifth grader (hanging in my bedroom, no less, and not stored away), that is indeed worth something.
Here's a GREAT fan-made video with scenes from the entire original series set to a song by Muse, "Time is Running Out" --
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