Sunday, February 23, 2014

Dark Shadows (2012)

I thought the rule with spoof movies was that first you had to exhaust the premise and then you got to parody it. That's why a series of Airport movies came before Airplane, why Halloween and Friday the 13th preceded Scream. This time around, the story is ridiculed before it is told, making the lackluster results inevitable.

Yes, I know that Dark Shadows was a cult soap opera 40 years ago. It was innovative and engrossing for its time, but the cheap production values and continuing plot make it too long and campy to succeed in syndication. This isn't Star Trek where the reruns live on forever. Therefore, most of today's moviegoers aren't familiar with the Collins story. The few that are are devoted to it. That's why, for them, Tim Burton's send up is a slap in the face. There have been movies, and reboots, but the successful ones (made in 1970 and 1971 by the show's original creators)are as badly in need of a retelling as the regular show itself. So, it's hard to understand why Warner Bros. didn't just go with a straight script that would capitalize on Dark Shadows' cult fans and, perhaps, win the franchise some new ones. Of course, a plot chock full of vampires and witchery will never be too "straight" but the humor and charm can be derived from the inherent weirdness. Silly is not the equivalent of weird, nor its equal, in this case. If the movie takes itself seriously, we will laugh due to the contrast between the script and real life. When the movie considers itself a laughing stock, no one watching will form a higher opinion of it. All in all, it was about as engaging as a Punch and Judy sketch: loud, crude and outdated puppetry.

With the paranormal's popularity today (Twilight, Harry Potter, Walking Dead to name a few), this would be an ideal time to reel in a fresh audience with a clever, current spin on characters who have become lore. Instead we got more Burton than Barnabas and Depp stunts, in place of depth.

Maybe the studio was only interested in making the film if Burton was attached to it and, at this point, Burton proves every year that Edward Scissorhands was the height of his originality. He's gone downhill since then and, too often, taken Depp and Helena Bonham Carter with him. When you see any two of the three working together now, it spells doom. When all three are together, it shrieks death. Death of originality and substance.

The film starts 200 years ago in the 1870s. Barnabas is a young squire, sporting with a maid, Angelique, but when he falls in love with Josette and plans to marry her, Angelique proves that a witch rejected has 10 times more fury than a woman scorned. Angelique dooms the entire Collins' family. Barnabas' parents die. Josette is entranced so that against her volition she heads to the nearest cliff, Widow's Hill, Barnabas follows and is close enough to hear her utter "help me" before she catapults herself off the peak, into the waves below. He's so amazed by this that he stops a couple of times to stare, time that could have been better spent trying to catch up to her, but oh well ... Maybe he thought if he got closer, she'd run to her death faster. Anyway, by the time he reaches the edge himself, he sees her broken body below and launches himself over to join her in eternity. Angelique witnesses it all and thinks that death will end his suffering too soon. She casts a spell on him -- gee her spells work within seconds -- and instantly turns him into a vampire.

He returns home, to become one of the living dead, but the townspeople learn his secret and run to his mansion, Collinwood, with torches. Instead of just staking him, he's bound in a coffin and buried deep underground.

Fast forward to the 1970s. The Collins' family still live in the town that is named after them, Collinsport, but their fortunes have dwindled drastically. Collinwood is dilapidated. A shell of its former splendor. The family consists of Elizabeth, her ne'er-do-well brother Roger, a son he ignores, David, Elizabeth's hippy, trippy daughter Carolyn and David's psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman. They've just been joined by a new governess for David. He runs through them quickly. The latest is Victoria Winters, the replica of Barnabas' lost love Josette. In the original series, Maggie Evans and Victoria were two separate characters, but here the governess was born as "Maggie" but changes her name to Victoria as she flees a tortured childhood. Her parents institutionalized her because she saw ghosts. Luckily, so does David. His dead mother visits him in visions. Teacher and student bond because neither thinks the other is crazy.

What's so frustrating about the movie is that the sets and scenery are gothic and grand. They could have showcased a dramatic rendering of this story nicely, but are wasted as props for slapstick that is as old as Barnabas.

Workman are digging on a construction site when they hit a coffin, it opens up, Barnabas rises up and swiftly kills them all. He apologizes explaining that he's just been terribly thirsty. He briskly makes his way home, when he sees cars with headlights, he assumes they must be demons. Many laughs (or grimaces) are wrung from Barnabas' lack of familiarity with modern technology, music, TVs, cars, but it would have been just as enjoyable if his reactions were genuine, rather than gags.

At Collinwood, he enters the house and begins walking around as if he owns it -- which, he does. But young Carolyn and David have never seen him before and hardly seem surprised by his odd presence. His encounter with Elizabeth is different. She's heard the family legend and knows that the real Barnabas was a vampire. So, if he is the original, as he claims, then she's ready to stake him. But he promises her he means no harm to her, their, family and can show her a fortune which will raise their flagging fortunes. He knows all of the mansion's secret passages and shows her a dungeon where his father kept gold and treasures. Beholding the stash, Elizabeth is happy to let Barnabas into the family. Actually, the relationship they quickly form as co-heads of the family, loyal to one another, is endearing to me. When Barnabas gives Roger the choice of being a good father to David for a change, or leaving the family with enough of an endowment to support himself, Elizabeth supports him. And they stand guard over David and the others, as Roger takes the money and runs.

Barnabas not only sets about renovating the mansion, but revitalizes the family's fishing business too. He updates the canary and is set to compete against their biggest rival, Angie's Bay. He soon learns that "Angie" is his old nemesis Angelique. While he was buried for centuries, she has lived through the years, updating her look for each generation, building her own fortune while making sure the Collins' legacy never recovered, from the disaster she first wrought upon them in 1870. Seeing Barnabas, she still wants him, with a passion that makes one wonder how she could have left him entombed all of these years.

He tries to resist her, but soon they're rolling around with supernatural vigor, on the walls, the ceiling, crashing through walls. When the romp is over, Barnabas tells Angelique it must never happen again and generally insults her in a way that is illogical, seeing that she has the powers of witchcraft on her side. He's no match for, so I'm not quite sure why he taunts. More flies with honey.

But she's not Barnabas' only rejected lover. When Hoffman finds out what Barnabas is, she first offers to cure him with blood transfusions which may staunch his craving for human blood. Then she offers him oral sex. It's actually a wasted pairing when one remembers the complexity of the "real" bond between tv's Julia and Barnabas. It was erotic, but unconsummated, since her attraction to Barnabas was unrequited. The fact that it was also unspoken added layers to their exchanges, especially when combined with actress Grayson Hall's quirky, perhaps absent, abilities. That Julia loved Barnabas and when she tried to control his homicidal instincts by offering him her own neck, we saw it as her way of drawing him closer to her, as a patient and a man.

As his "doctor" she wielded superficial control, but she was his, a magnet for his anger, frustrations and manipulations. Julia and Willie Loomis (the Collins' caretaker once played by John Karlen of Cagney and Lacey fame) were Barnabas' pawns, protectors and ... accomplices. Watching their fear shift to loyalty was a draw in the original series, but nonexistent in the movie.

Hoffman's character is meaningless. Barnabas quickly dispatches her when he learns that rather than giving him human blood, she's been injecting his, trying to ensure eternal life, youth for herself. He kills her, then tosses her body in the ocean. In the end when we see her not-so-lifeless body floating underwater as the surprise last shot, it's puzzling. She was so inconsequential as a character, comic or villain that the audience cares less that she is still alive than they did about her death. If her reappearance was planted at the end to show us what a sequel would be like, it only makes the first installment seem all the more horrible.

Barnabas throws a ball for the family, complete with Alice Cooper as the live entertainment. The only interesting aspect of the gala is the brief sight of original Dark Shadows actors David Selby, Lara Parker, Kathryn Leigh Scott and the inimitable Jonathan Frid enter the party as guests. I had to rewind to savor that.

During the festivities, Victoria confesses to Barnabas that she returns his love. They kiss on the balcony as Angelique looks on in anger. After the party, she invites Barnabas to her office and asks him to be her partner in love and in business. He scoffs and she quickly chains him up and entombs him again. Young David finds and releases Barnabas and they return home, only to find that Angelique has turned the whole town against them. The townspeople swarm Collinwood with pitchfork. The family stands together to stave them off, but when the masses leave, Angelique still fights only, using her magic to toss everyone around. It's more whirlwind than war, as the whole house is torn asunder in the battle. Beams and chandeliers fall. A fire erupts.

Carolyn reveals that she is a werewolf in the midst of the havoc. It means nothing to the plot. Perhaps this too was planned for the sequel which will, mercifully, never take place.

In the end, Angelique is defeated and killed. But when they search for Victoria in the wreckage, she is nowhere to be found. Fearing the worst, Barnabas rushes to Widow's Hill. Yes, Victoria is there, ready to cast herself over the edge, like Josette did centuries earlier. She says she's doing it because she can't live with Barnabas. He's a creature of the night (although, like Edward Cullen, he goes out during the day, as long as he's well-covered) and she lives and grows old during the day. She will age and die and he will remain the same, so they can never be together. The only answer is to make her like him. This suggestion comes out of nowhere, because Victoria had never expressed such a yearning before.

In fact, she didn't even know he was a vampire. She saw him catch fire when the sun hit him once, but I wouldn't expect her to even know what that meant. She recoiled and left the room and we hadn't seen her since. But apparently, she knew immediately that burning flesh meant vampire and decided -- not that she was horrified realizing that Barnabas was probably responsible for all the recent deaths in the neighborhood -- that she wanted to vamp up too.

Barnabas refuses to make her one of his kind. She answers that death is the only choice and plunges off the hill. As before, he jumps after her. When he reaches the ground, he bites her. She becomes a vampire immediately (apparently conversion by fang is as quick as Angelique's vampire spell was. They live happily ever after.

If I was disappointed in the first part of the movie, the last 20 minutes was just a montage of crashes, broken glass and falling wood. This scriptless carnage is tedious in a good action movie, to tack it onto a screenplay that was dreck to begin with ... is just pounding the last nail in the coffin.

To my once-beloved Barnabas, if this is the best that Hollywood can do, may he stay buried.

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