Saturday, May 12, 2012

Gothique a la Tim

No one does Gothic quite like Team Tim. For a guy like me, that’s the deciding factor. In visual terms, Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows tips the Gothic scale, from the crumbling majesty of Collinwood Manor to the shots of Widow’s Hill and the raging sea below, to the seacoast village of Collinsport, and the Collins family graveyard that makes its appearance in the final frames of the film, this IS the world of Dark Shadows.

For the most part, the movies takes the plot of the first year and a half or so from the original TV show and compresses it into 115 minutes: young woman with mysterious past comes to Collinwood to be governess to troubled little boy and runs afoul of morose family in a dank mansion which has seen better days. Enter vampire whose presence sends the ratings through the roof, and the writers send the entire cast back to the 18th Century to explore the beginnings of the vampire’s curse. All of this is dispatched in the first twenty minutes or so of the film. It is easily the best part.

But what about the Collins family themselves? Michelle Pfeiffer’s Elizabeth Collins Stoddard and Chloe Mertz’s scene-stealing Carolyn Stoddard remain the most faithful to the series’ characters while riffing and expanding on the original ideas. On the show, little David was a cross between a brat and a true creep (mostly, I think, due to the fact that the actor, David Hennessy, who allegedly does not have fond memories of being a child actor, must have loathed every excruciating day of it). Gulliver McGrath’s David is a sweet natured child with alleged psychiatric problems, but the character as written is sadly underdeveloped. The writers missed a terrific opportunity to riff on that other classic dark haired five-year-old, Damien Thorne. And then there is Roger Collins whose written character and performance by Jonny Lee Miller are so far off the mark he should have been one of Barnabas’s first victims.

Which brings us to the star of the show, Mr. Depp. Johnny IS Barnabas Collins, even with the Nosferatu hands (which are one of the best additions to the character). He is handsome, pasty, stylish, courtly, bewildered, romantic, sexy, and ruthless… everything the character of Barnabas Collins should be.

Out of the extended family, I enjoyed housekeeper Mrs. Johnson the most. She’s only onscreen in a few short scenes and speaks not a word, but every time I saw her I burst out with a robust guffaw. Jackie Earle Haley turned in a fun performance as Willie Loomis but, like other characters, wasn’t given enough to do. John Karlen’s reading of Willie on the original show was one of the most nuanced performances, especially when compared to the relentless scene-chewing of Grayson Hall’s Dr. Julia Hoffman. Helena Bonham Carter looks the part, but she would have turned in a better performance if she had watched several week’s worth of Hall’s TV version and expanded on that hamminess. Even her drunk scenes (which are most of them) are uninspired. I’m a big fan of HBC, but this is one of her least interesting performances.

But the biggest misstep of character reinvention is Angelique Bouchard. The power struggle between witch Angelique and vampire Barnabas is the core of the movie’s plot, as well it should be, but here the producers decided to turn her into a high camp vamp straight out of True Blood. That’s fine in Bon Temps, but this is Collinsport. I’m easily bored with special effects fight scenes in movies, and the final showdown between Elizabeth’s shotgun and Angelique was too much for me… and was a poorly executed steal from Death Becomes Her to boot.

There were two drafts of the script, the first by John August who shares the “story by” credit with final script writer Seth Grahame-Smith. The production would have benefited from a bit more fleshing out of the minor characters and less emphasis on Hollywood spectacle FX. Dark Shadows does not require explosions and car crashes, but that, metaphorically speaking, is exactly how this movie ends. A third script might have given this viewer more satisfaction.

Other hard core Dark Shadows fans are hating all over Tim Burton for “ruining” their sacred cow. I’ve run through lists of current directors who could possibly do the series justice. Robert Altman is dead, that leaves someone like Paul Thomas Anderson who excels at the type of ensemble story telling the tale of Dark Shadows requires.

Ten years ago I made a wish list for a big screen adaptation, and it always was a Tim and Johnny Show. In reinterpreting the Gothic world of the Collins family for a new generation, they have succeeded. Tim just needed a better script. 

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