The Art of Darkness

Dark Shadows Review

May 21st, 2012 by Cobwebs

The short version (click to embiggen):

Bloom County

The long version (spoilers abound, so beware):

I was dimly aware of the Dark Shadows soap opera in the 70s, but never watched it. I knew that it was simply chock-full of supernatural elements, and although possibly campy in the way that 70s soap operas tended to be, it wasn’t really played for laughs. So when the trailer for the new movie suggested that it was largely a dark comedy, I was unsurprised at the outpouring of displeasure from fans of the series.

Brothers and sisters, if this turkey had been a dark comedy, it would have been much better than what it actually turned out to be.

The trailer also indicates a more-or-less cohesive storyline: Vampire is cursed by witch, returns after 200 years to restore his family to prominence, amusingly encounters culture shock along the way. In reality, this was about six separate and only-tangentially related movies that were all trying to occupy the same space in direct contravention of physics. The result was a confusing tangle of storylines that left me not caring much about any of them.

The story begins with a prologue set in the late 1700s, with Barnabas Collins as the scion of a wealthy family in Maine who made their fortune in the fishing industry. He “spurns” (if politely stating that he can’t tell her he loves her “because that would be a lie” qualifies as “spurning”) a maid who happens to be a witch. She avenges herself by first dropping a gargoyle on his parents and then forcing the woman he does love to fling herself dramatically off a cliff. He throws himself after her, only to find himself still alive at the bottom, cursed by the witch to become a vampire. (It is not explored why this woman, who clearly has hella magical powers, is working as a chambermaid instead of ruling a small country somewhere.) She follows up by turning all of the townspeople against him, and they lock him in an iron coffin and bury him.

…and cut to the “present day” of 1972, to a young woman who is a dead ringer for Barnabas’ lost love–now there’s an unexpected and shocking development–riding alone on a train (as I understand it, this is how the original series began, so that’s a nice nod to the soap). She is practicing introducing herself, saying something along the lines of, “Pleased to meet you, my name is [something that I don’t recall].” Then she glances at a poster on the wall advertising ski vacations in Victoria, B.C., and reintroduces herself, “Pleased to meet you, my name is Victoria Winters.” Aha! She wishes to conceal her identity. A plot twist!…Which is lovely, but the reason she’s traveling is because she’s been hired as a governess by the Collins family, and since the woman who hired her specifically mentions her application in the very next scene, I’m wondering how she managed to get hired without ever supplying her name. This is the kind of, “Wha?” moment that is repeated throughout the movie.

So now we meet the denizens of the great-but-sadly-dilapidated Collinwood estate: Willie the caretaker, who channels Riff Raff so hard I expected him to break into “Time Warp” at any moment; Elizabeth, who both manages the household and runs what’s left of the fishing business; Roger, her feckless brother; Carolyn, her defiant 15-year-old daughter; David, Roger’s young son, who is thought to be extremely disturbed because he constantly insists that he speaks to his dead mother; and Dr. Hoffman, an alcoholic psychiatrist who had been brought on for a month to work with David but had somehow stayed for three years (there’s also an extremely withered old housekeeper who has no lines and whose role is largely to dodder). “Victoria” has been hired to help with David, and there are dark hints that none of the other nannies lasted more than a week. This turn-of-the-screw plotline goes precisely nowhere, as David is completely sweet and normal for the entire movie, and except for one scene (which I am getting to) there is ZERO interaction between him and his “nanny.”

That is the scene in which we first meet him; everyone except him has sat down to dinner, he appears in the doorway covered by a sheet with two eyeholes cut out, his father makes him take it off and chides him for cutting holes in sheets, and he complains that he wanted to scare the new nanny. He asks her with wide-eyed innocence if she was scared, she replies indulgently that she was terrified, and I believe that is the last we see of the entire nanny/disturbed child subplot.

Now we get to the next “Wha?” That night, as Victoria prepares for bed, the same sheet-covered figure appears in her doorway. She tells “David” to cut it out, yanks off the sheet, and finds…the ghost of Barnabas’ girlfriend. Looking all wide-eyed (seriously; the actress has eyes like manhole covers) and transparent and spooky, in period attire. And after standing there and staring for a second, she turns and floats off down the hallway, and Victoria…follows her. She doesn’t scream, she doesn’t go, “Holy shit there’s a ghost and also it looks just like me!” she doesn’t even go, “Hm. Ghost. How ’bout that.” She treats the incident as if this is an everyday occurrence, blandly follows her down the hallway, watches as she falls off the chandelier in imitation of her fall from the cliff, and then wanders back to her room and gets an excellent night’s sleep. Doesn’t bother, as nearly as I can tell, to even mention it to anybody. Almost at the end of the movie, this blase attitude is “explained” by the sudden revelation that she was institutionalized as a child because she could see ghosts (or at least this particular ghost). Freshly escaped from the asylum as an adult, she’s shown sitting in a coffee shop as the ghost helpfully points out the Collins’ want ad in the newspaper. So that explains the ghost thing, but raises a slew of brand-new questions as to how she’s able to function in the real world after a decade of shock treatments and solitary confinement, not to mention where she got the money for a train ticket. (Also, since this quirk in her character was not telegraphed at all, by the time you get to the quasi-explanation you’ve spent two hours thinking, “Was Tim Burton drunk when he directed this thing?”)

Next we meet Barnabas. Workmen–conveniently working at night–dig up his coffin and instead of calling the local historic preservation society to report a significant discovery, use bolt cutters to remove the chains around it. He emerges, eats them all (apologizing gallantly to one at his necessity), then walks home to Collinwood. He quickly convinces Elizabeth that he is a vampire, shows her a secret room where loads of treasure has been conveniently moldering away for 200 years, and she happily installs him as a member of the family (telling everyone else that he’s simply an eccentric distant relative visiting from England).

The entire restoring-the-house-and-business-to-their-former-glory which from the trailer appeared to be a fairly critical part of the movie is handled, I swear to god, in one long montage set to a Carpenters song. Also Christopher Lee has a really inexplicable cameo as the captain of a fishing boat whom Barnabas hypnotizes into working for him. (A bit later Alice Cooper has a similarly-inexplicable cameo as himself, trying–and mainly failing–to look like he did 40 years ago.)

The witch now reappears, having stayed in the same little Maine town for 200 years and built her fortune with a rival fishing company (she apparently keeps pretending to be her own daughter at intervals). She vows to ruin Barnabas’ family because she takes that “woman scorned” stuff really seriously. Meanwhile, Victoria confesses to Barnabas that she loves him, despite having had no onscreen interaction with him whatsoever.

David’s father has been shown throughout to be a cad, and Barnabas gives him the choice of staying and being a better father or taking some money and leaving forever. He chooses the latter, and in a not-at-all touching scene he leaves and David is sad for about 0.3 seconds and then gets distracted by a shiny object or something. For all of the impact on the story, he might as well not have been in it at all.

Dr. Hoffman (played by Helena Bonham-Carter, who does a dynamite American accent) discovers that Barnabas is a vampire and he convinces her to try and make him mortal again by some poorly-explained blood transfusion procedure. He barges in on her a couple of scenes later, calmly reading a magazine whilst transfusing herself with his blood, and she admits that she was trying to become a vampire because she doesn’t want to age any more. So he goes, “Yeah, sorry” and kills her. He weights her body down with a cinder block and dumps her in the bay, and as she’s sinking you notice she has nascent fangs which is possibly Significant Foreshadowing, but honestly I couldn’t bring myself to care. I couldn’t bring myself to care about ANY of it.

Eventually there’s the expected Major Showdown at Collinwood between the witch and Barnabas. The effects are rather nice, which is about all I can say favorably about this whole movie. Here’s the best–and by “best” I mean “completely ridiculous”–part: About halfway through the fight Carolyn (the 15-year-old), suddenly all furry, jumps on the witch and attacks her. When thrown aside she stands up and says, quote, “I’m a werewolf. Don’t make a big deal out of it.” This was the point where Shadaughter–who dragged me to this turkey–and I turned to each other and mouthed, “What. The. Fook?” The daughter is suddenly a werewolf. For absolutely no earthly reason. Never before hinted at. Since I didn’t watch the series I can’t be sure, but I’m honestly wondering if Burton was trying to be faithful to the soap opera right down to the stilted acting and the miss-an-episode-and-you’re-completely-lost major plot points appearing out of nowhere.

Finally David’s dead mother–see? He wasn’t crazy after all; are you shocked? I know I am–shows up and does whatever phantasmal mojo a ghost can do and knocks the witch down, and Barnabas delivers the final blow. (The effect here was laudable–as she was injured, she continually cracked like a porcelain doll, showing that she was hollow.) Collinwood burns down, but everybody makes it out okay, and Elizabeth says in a tone that’s probably supposed to sound resilient that they will “endure.” Barnabas follows Victoria to the same cliff his girlfriend threw herself off of, and she says that she’ll grow old and he won’t and therefore the obvious thing to do is to throw herself to her death. Makes sense to me! So she jumps and he jumps after her and manages to catch up to her–Galileo might have something to say about that–and bites her and they hit the rocks and presto! she’s a vampire. And they kiss. The end.

Oh–and just before the credits Dr. Hoffman wakes up underwater looking all fangy. Never saw that coming.

I…am deeply offended by this movie. Any one of the six or seven movies it was trying to be would probably have been interesting. All accreted together, they are just supremely unfortunate. If Burton was trying to prove that not everything he touches turns to spooky gold, he has succeeded wildly.

Posted in Whatever | 4 Comments »

4 Responses

  1. Maven Says:

    Well, at least he didn’t go into the whole Frankensteinian Monster plot-line I recall from watching re-runs in the 80’s…

  2. Maven Says:

    FWIW, I felt the same way about Burton’s Mars Attacks. I wanted my $ and the time from my life back.

  3. Barbara Says:

    I did watch the TV show, this movie makes me sad. In theory both Burton and Depp were fans of the orignial show and this is what they produce?
    The camp of the original show worked because the actors took their roles seriously. Silly at time yes, but it was fun and held one’s attention.
    Frid’s Barnabas evoked a deep sadness at what his existance had become and what it could have been.
    This new film version is trash not worth watching.

  4. xJane Says:

    ahahaha! Now I want to watch it!

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