Sunday, May 13, 2012

Dark Shadows and 'marginal weirdness'

I have been eagerly awaiting the opening of Tim Burton’s new film, Dark Shadows; it opened here in Norway this past Friday, May 11th. So I was online a few days before and ordered a ticket so that I was assured a seat in the theater. I needn’t have worried; the theater was not full, and I doubt it will be for any of the showings. Not because the film isn’t worth seeing, it is, but mostly because it will have limited appeal given its subject matter in a cinema world where vampires have been done to death. I need think only of the Twilight films and of True Blood, both of which I don’t really watch, although I have seen one of the Twilight films and a few of the True Blood episodes. They don’t appeal to me as much as the original Dark Shadows TV series or the two Dark Shadows films from the 1970s (House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows) based on the TV series. The original Dark Shadows series and even the subsequent films managed something none of the other vampire films or series has managed as well, with the possible exception of Francis Ford Coppola’s incredible wonderful film version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And that is to take themselves seriously, despite that the subject matter was nothing more than pure fantasy. They wove the supernatural fantasies of vampires, ghosts, witches, werewolves and other creatures into a soap opera storyline filled with romance, love, sex, deceit, treachery, normal life, family life and honor, wealthy families, and tragic lives. They managed to be serious and campy simultaneously. The Dark Shadows TV series was talky, like a good soap opera should be. It kept its viewers hanging literally onto each word a character uttered. Those words were important to the storyline, driving it forward, and since the series ran from Monday to Friday, viewers were guaranteed a treasure trove of conversations, arguments, conflicts, ultimatums, discussions and more conversations. In between all of these, something supernatural could occur—there might be vampire or witch activity, or ghosts that wandered about the Collinwood mansion or estate, which was often shrouded in darkness or fog. It seemed to be always evening on Dark Shadows; and like the individual characters, I was always relieved when they got indoors, into the foyer and then into the main drawing room—a safe haven for the most part, because that was where normal family life happened, where ghosts and vampires and witches were kept at bay at least when the individual family members met there. Of course the other parts of the house were not as ‘safe’; I need only think of the different rooms inhabited by ghosts, or rooms that were portals into parallel times. I think those are the parts of Tim Burton’s film that I liked the most—when the Collins family sat down to dinner, with the matriarch of the family, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michele Pfeiffer) sitting at the head of the table, in complete control of her family. All she had to do was open her mouth and tell someone to be quiet, and he or she toed the line. At these times during the film, there was conversation, a sense of family, a sense of why these people stayed together and lived together in the house. Viewers learned about the history of the Collins family and how they made their living. There was character development and storyline progression. Much of this took place during the first half of the film. And then came the second half of the film, which took off into another realm completely—the absurd really, with Alice Cooper visiting the mansion as entertainment for one of the family’s famous ‘happenings’, or Angelique (played by Eva Green) ranting and raving about being scorned and how she would make Barnabas (Johnny Depp) and the family pay. She did a good job, but I would have preferred less emphasis on her and more on Barnabas and Victoria/Josette (played by Bella Heathcote), on Carolyn (played by Chloë Grace Moretz), or even on David (played by Gulliver McGrath). The film ends up being rather schizophrenic; I preferred the first half—the return of Barnabas, his entrance into and confrontation with the 20th century, his meeting with his old family, his having to live and act as a vampire—all those things. The second half of the movie toyed with the first half. I would have preferred otherwise. But I am not sorry I saw the film. Why? Because after I got home, I went online and found some of the old Dark Shadows TV episodes on YouTube, and watched a few. And then I went onto Amazon and ordered the entire DVD collection of the original TV series (131 DVDs spanning 470 hours). I’ve decided that I will come home from work each day and watch one episode, just as I ran home from school in the 1970s to watch an episode on TV. I am looking forward to the experience of reliving the original series.

I’ve been following the reviews of Burton’s film to this point. The New York Times gave it a good review and even put it on its Critics’ Pick list: http://movies.nytimes.com/2012/05/11/movies/johnny-depp-stars-in-tim-burtons-dark-shadows.html. IMDB has a list of the different reviews so far: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1077368/externalreviews
But the review that resonated most with me was the one on Salon: http://www.salon.com/2012/05/10/johnny_depps_delirious_dark_shadows/. Why? The following excerpt from this review will explain it well: 
Barnabas Collins predates not just “Twilight” and “True Blood,” but also Anne Rice’s “Interview With the Vampire” and the entire rise of the Goth sensibility. In the 1970s, vampires were something that only marginal weirdos who went to science-fiction bookstores and watched Hammer films like “Dracula: Prince of Darkness” knew about. People like the teenage Tim Burton, in other words”.

Well, marginal weirdo could describe me too. I may not have gone to sci-fi bookstores when I was a teenager (I’ve done so in my twenties and loved all the ones I’ve been in), but I did watch the many Christopher Lee vampire films and I even dragged my poor sister to them to keep me company. Heck, I dragged her to a lot of different horror films from that time. Needless to say, she does not have the same fond memories I have of time well-spent in dark movie theaters watching horror films. Of course, now that I think of it, she did accompany me, when she could have said no. Sometimes we were accompanied by a friend of hers, who was a marginal weirdo like myself. He liked those kinds of films, and was even the type to build models of Frankenstein and Dracula that glowed in the dark. I don’t know what happened to him after high school; I can only wonder if he too has seen Burton’s film. I would love to hear his take on the film.


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