labingi: (r2dvd)
[personal profile] labingi
For Mother's Day, I saw the Tim Burton remake of Dark Shadows with my parents, which is appropriate since it's my mother and father who introduced me to Dark Shadows more than thirty years ago. Indeed, it was one of the first TV shows I was ever aware of and Barnabas Collins one of the first characters for whom my preschool brain ever created fan fictional ramblings. (Funny how I knew even then that he was cool character.)

The Original

The original TV show was a scraping-the-bottom-of-the-pail cheap vampire soap opera that owes much of its incredible popularity to its mind-blowingly low budget. Here was a show so cheap the actors scarcely had time to rehearse their lines before filming, a show so cheap it could rarely afford more than two takes of a scene, a show, which, therefore, boasts a legion of bloopers that went straight out on the air: mangled lines, boom shadows, wobbly tomb stones, production assistants streaking past the camera. It's hilarious. And this is necessary, because the actual stories are so heavily overwrought that they are hilarious too--and they need to be made fun of if we are to take them seriously.

There is an aspect of Dark Shadows that aimed for pathos and succeeded. The center of the story, Barnabas is a pathetic figure: a reluctant vampire, cursed by a witch, longing for love and humanity but unable to exist in the human world due not only to his vampire nature but to his bewilderment as an 18th century man suddenly finding himself in the 20th. He predates even Anne Rice as a depiction of the suffering vampire with a soul. So, too, one can feel for other characters caught in the grips of curses and thwarted love and so on. But it really is awfully over the top, and the single thing that keeps us from jeering is the cheapness that makes us chuckle affectionately.

In an interview, Jonathan Frid once noted that Barnabas feels his way haltingly through his dialogue because Frid himself was desperately trying to remember his lines. It worked, Frid said, because Frid's own clinging by a thread to the storyline perfectly encapsulated the groping attempts of an 18th century vampire to pass as a 20th century human. He was right: it was this sense of befuddlement that made Barnabas endearing. (It's no coincidence that in the 1970s movie version, when the actors were better rehearsed, Barnabas comes off as simple, conniving evil. When he knows what his lines are, he says them way too self-confidently!)

There was an attempt in 1991 to revive the series as a sexier, higher budget drama. Predictably, it failed. Stripped of the layers of meta-humor, the story becomes merely one more emo vampire melodrama.

The Burton Film

Here's where Tim Burton's version got it right (and also failed). The Burton team knew the story needed to be funny, and their film's strongest moments are the ones played for laughs, mostly--and appropriately--based on Barnabas's confusion at the world of the 1970s (the funny bits start about 40 seconds in): the TV as a witchcraft, the marvel of the McDonald's sign, "they tried stoning me," Miss (Alice) Cooper, and so on. Another comedy winner is Caroline, who plays the bratty teen brilliantly. If the whole story had been played as black comedy (with real pathos), it would have been a winner.

It falls where it tries to tell a semi-serious vampire angst story. Too much of it is played too straight: the entire 18th century backstory, almost all of the extremely token Barnabas-Victoria/Josette love story, much of the Collins drama. Victoria, in particular, is a weak link. She's given a dramatic backstory, but with so little development and realism that it does little for the character. The character herself is as blank as her single blank expression. She looks like Josette, and one can only imagine this is the only reason Barnabas thinks he loves her because we sure don't see anything else to love (like or notice).

Angelique is a mixed bag: she's well acted and a convincingly powerful antagonist, and she is certainly served by some good comedy beats. She's also pathetically petty and immature in a very stereotypically woman-scorned sort of way that prevents her from being particularly interesting. This, however, also pretty much sums Angelique from the original TV series and is central to how she functions in the plotline, so I don't know what fix I might have suggested except maybe a little more tongue-in-cheek?

I agree with just about everyone else that Michelle Pfeiffer was excellent as Elizabeth Stoddard. Indeed, it's an interesting aspect of the selection characters to emphasize that Barnabas becomes the male protagonist surrounded almost entirely by women: female love interest(s), female antagonist, female teen confidante, female matriarch confidante, female doctor confidante. The only other male character of emotional moment is David, who is well acted as a sympathetic, sensitive kid. I wouldn't say the story feels exactly feminist by 21st century standards, but its sheer numbers of important women ensure ample Bechdel passage, which is rare enough in Hollywood.

All in all, the story offered some moments of relatable pathos, supported by more than a few moments of excellent comedy but undercut to by too much attempt at straight drama in a story that's too ridiculous to take straight. The strong female cast is a plus, as is the acting in general (minus Victoria). I recommend it to fans of the original if they are open to changes from the original and don't expect a strong ending. I expect viewers going in with no prior knowledge would find it a bit flat despite some good laughs.
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