Thursday, October 25, 2012

What’s Hiding in the Dark Shadows?

I have to start this post out by admitting that I’ve never watched the TV show Dark Shadows and really the only thing I knew about it was that reference on Gilmore Girls. So when I heard that the newest Tim Burton movie in works was going to be based on the show, I thought to myself that I would pass on it even though I love Burton (and that he would be once again collaborating with actor Johnny Depp). I figured the movie would be chock full of characters, plot lines, and references I wouldn’t understand, not to mention that my limited understanding of the TV show was that it was somewhat campy. And I am not really a fan of campy, except in limited cases.

However, that all changed once I started seeing trailers for the Dark Shadows movie. It looked very funny, albeit a bit cheesy, and I really liked the idea of a character re-awakening nearly two centuries later and having to figure out the new cultural milieu. And I learned that in addition to Depp, the movie featured a cast of excellent actors including Jonny Lee Miller, Jackie Earle Harley, Helena Bonham Carter, and Michelle Pfeiffer. While it still wasn’t super high on my list of movies to see, I became interesting in viewing the movie at some point. That point came when I was flying recently and Dark Shadows was one of the choices for the in-flight movie.

The basic plot of the movie is that the wealthy Collins family settles into a small fishing town in Maine that they name Collinsport, back in the 18th century. Their son Barnabas trifles with a servant, Angelique, but then falls in love with another woman. In retribution, Angelique – who of course is a witch – wreaks havoc on Barnabas’s life and ultimately turns him into a vampire and has the town bury him in chains. When a group of construction workers accidentally release Barnabas from his coffin, he returns to the family home and learns the year – 1972. He meets the new members of the Collins family and their household – Elizabeth, Roger, Carolyn, and David Collins in addition to Dr. Hoffman (a psychiatrist), Willie Loomis (the groundskeeper) and Victoria (a governess). The Collins family fortune has been much reduced and Barnabas promises to help restore it. He learns that the family’s arch nemesis is still Angelique, although she has changed her name/identity over the years to avoid suspicion about how she never ages. Angelique – still in love with Barnabas and angry at his betrayal – vows to make life hell for Barnabas all over again if he refuses to love her in return.

As you can probably start to tell by how long my “basic plot” summary is, this movie tried to pack way too much into a relatively short time. It just wasn’t working, as there wasn’t enough time to develop all the plot lines, let alone all the characters. There was so little known about many of the characters and unfortunately, oftentimes the little that you did know made you dislike them as there wasn’t enough time built in to include redeemable characteristics. (I’m thinking in particular of Jonny Lee Miller’s character, Roger, with this last remark.)

I didn’t mind so much the Angelique turns Barnabas into a vampire storyline in the beginning, mainly because the plot has to start somewhere and I’m guessing this is where knowledge of the original series comes into play. But seriously centuries have gone by and Angelique is just pining away for Barnabas still??? It’s this tired scorned woman trope which relies on the idea that a woman cannot possibly move on from one failed relationship to another more successful one. Seriously, let me reiterated – nearly 200 years have passed and this beautiful, never-aging, spell-casting, wealthy, business-savvy woman is incapable of finding someone better than the guy who used her and then dumped her like a bad habit.

Meanwhile, Barnabas – while temporary distracted by Angelique – is taken in by Victoria, who resembles his lost love. This relationship blooms super quickly, I suppose a necessity in the crunched time available for the movie to unfold, without the two interacting much. Because of the whole past love resemblance thing, it’s not entirely unreasonable for Barnabas to be smitten easily but the reciprocity of feelings is a bit of a stretch. Seriously, has Victoria looked at this man in a clear light ever? Or even in a murky light? There is clearly something off about him, on many different levels. Yet, for some reason, when it becomes beyond apparent later that he’s a vampire, she is surprised as though it wasn’t obvious that something was unusual about him.

Victoria is one of those characters that suffers from the compressed time allotted for the movie, as I mentioned earlier about characterizations in general. When she’s introduced early on in the film, we know that she is lying about herself and her background is unclear but by the time that she is able to explain some of this, we’ve already lost interest in her as she’s seen so little screen time since her introduction. The big reveal about her is definitely one of those “too little, too late” situations. Not dissimilar to Angelique’s lack of real characterization, the rest of the time Victoria is mostly a mash-up of two common tropes: the mysterious waif and the ingénue.

Together, these two female characters do a pretty decent job of fulfilling yet another trope: the virgin-whore complex. Angelique, the scullery maid who owns her sexuality and freely gives her body to Barnabas, is an evil witch while Victoria, the sweet governess who never shares more than a kiss with Barnabas, is the perfect angel everyone adores. Don't believe me? Just take a look again at the promotional movie poster (picture above). That's Angelique, looking curvaceous and seductive in a revealing vibrant red dress. Victoria is the one in the background on the left, looking like a 12-year-old school girl in a staid, all-concealing dress with a large collar to doubly ensure that she's all covered up. Honestly, the black dress with a white collar practically screams nun in a sheltered convent, as though the girl has made vows of chastity. If this were the actual TV series from the 1960s-70s, I probably wouldn’t object so much to such a black/white dichotomy but a remake should not simply repeat the sins of the past and continue to evoke such damaging portrayals of women.

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

To make matters worse, the ending of the movie becomes beyond absurd. Out of the blue, teenager Carolyn Collins is revealed to be a werewolf, and young David Collins’s belief that his mother is a ghost is confirmed, complete with visuals. Whereas earlier Barnabas and Angelique could throw each other around the room and destroy the place during their passionate love-making, when they fight at the end Angelique can suddenly be broken into tiny glass pieces by the slightest touch of Barnabas’s hand. This kind of lack of continuity makes me crazy. Please stick to the rules of the world you have created.

My feelings about a lot of the extended and clearly-meant-to-be climactic fight scene between the Collinses and Angelique were, “oh, come on! You’ve got to be kidding me.” Later still, when Victoria – in a Bella Swan moment – suddenly insists that Barnabas turn her into a vampire so they can be together forever, there isn’t any sense that this is a logical next step for a character who hardly knows Barnabas at all. It’s just an attempt to tack a happy ending onto an otherwise fairly dark movie.

All and all, I found this movie incredibly disappointing. As I mentioned already, the characterizations were mostly weak and I felt like a hugely talented cast was largely wasted. Furthermore, the movie was not as funny as I’d hoped for, with the scenes of Barnabas re-acquainting himself with the world after centuries in a coffin largely covered in the trailer with no further expanding upon in the movie itself. I had expected a lot more of these funny sequences rather than what I got instead. There was a lot more violence and gruesomeness than I had anticipated, and the movie felt more dark with only an occasional hint of humor rather than the darkly funny that I’ve come to expect from Tim Burton’s movie.

In case you can’t tell, I’m not recommending this one. If you are a huge Dark Shadows fan, perhaps you’ll want to check it out to any similarities/dissimilarities with the original series. But if like me, you are just looking for an entertaining movie, look elsewhere.

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