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Reconsidering 'Shadows'

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Monday, Oct 1, 2012
Dark Shadows is one of the best satires of the last few years. It channels the PG-13 passivity of post-millennial horror, forcefully mocking the Twilight-ing of the genre while reinvesting the source with a surreal bit of social commentary.
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Dark Shadows (Blu-ray)

Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Jonny Lee Miller, Chloë Grace Moretz, Gulliver McGrath

(Warner Bros. Pictures; US DVD: 2 Oct 2012; UK DVD: 2 Oct 2012 (Wide release))

It happens every once in a great while. We react to something instinctually, only later to recognize our core response was off by some degree. Maybe it’s a food we couldn’t stomach in our youth which now sits at the top of our culinary food chain, or a song, once stuck in our brain, that will no longer find residence in your real aesthetic purview. Put another way, we all go through a phase of liking/disliking something for the wrong reasons, only to come back to it later and realize its worth/worthlessness. In film, the folly is even worse. Roger Ebert hated David Lynch’s Blue Velvet when it was released, only to see it become one of the most critically acclaimed film of the auteur’s career. Yours truly never really “got” 2001, having spent at least two decades denigrating it before it finally clicked, becoming unquestionably my favorite film of all time.


So for those who gave the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp reinterpretation of Dan Curtis’ seminal Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows lax marks (and I did), perhaps it’s time for a reevaluation. Oh sure, the film only came out a few months ago and still carries the stigma of being a less than faithful update of the macabre-themed serial, but when viewed in a different light, one outside the influence of nostalgia and misremembered pleasures, it stands on its own. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. Does it indulge in things that would make members of the Barnabas Collins Fan Club wince? Certainly. But when viewed in its own light, when taken out of the times it was supposedly reflecting, what once seemed silly becomes sly.
  
In fact, it’s safe to say that Dark Shadows is one of the best satires of the last few years. It channels the PG-13 passivity of post-millennial horror, forcefully mocking the Twilight-ing of the genre while reinvesting the source with a surreal bit of social commentary. Like his excellent take on alien invasion/disaster movie tropes, Mars Attacks! , Burton skewers things in a decidedly goofy, almost unrecognizable way. He will play scenes close to the vest only to turn the follow-up sequence into an over the top rollercoaster ride. Thus we get moments where Depp (as the lovelorn vampire back to reclaim the Collins name) attacks the TV set, believing such technology is the work of the Devil. In contrast, the sex scene between the morose macabre icon and the evil witch Angelique (Eva Green) is like a bawdy burlesque skit as envision by the Three Stooges.


Oddly enough, the aforementioned comedy troupe suffered the same supposed indignity at the hands of the Brothers Farrelly this year, and yet when seen through the eyes of the intended audience - kids between the ages of eight and eleven - it stands as a slap happy success. In these days of the ever-present remake, where the past is plundered for current creativity, such knee jerk reactions are par for the course. Take Rob Zombie’s update of John Carpenter’s horrific Hitchcock riff, Halloween. When it was announced, fans freaked out, but were basically on board. Then they saw the brilliant reinterpretation of the material, a film that followed young Michael Myers from a tormented pre-teen in an abusive home environment to the silent serial killer he would become, and totally lost their mind.


As one of the few critics who loved Zombie’s take on the material, the backlash was instantaneous and intense. The review here on PopMatters received 75 comments, many of which called into question my abilities as a film critic, horror fan, and human being. When the link was posted at Rotten Tomatoes, it received another 29 telling taunts. However, as time passed, as fans found better ways to channel their disappointment (or better still, learned to actually like what Zombie did), Halloween has become revered…somewhat. Don’t believe it? Head over to your favorite search engine and type in ‘Best Horror Remakes.’ Among the Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, you will find more than one listing for the once reviled offering.


Shadows suffers from something similar. As a massive…and I do mean, MASSIVE...fan of the original, nothing Depp and Burton did was going to meet my expectations. The original cast, including John Karlen, Jonathan Frid, Grayson Hall, Louis Edmunds, Joan Bennett, Lara Parker, and little David Henesy could never be co-opted by the likes of Jackie Earl Haley, Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Jonny Lee Miller, Michele Pfeiffer, Eva Green, and Gulliver McGrath. Relationships where changed, characteristics reconfigured and/or exaggerated. What used to pass for 30 minutes of intrigue was stretched out to over 90 minutes, and the overall tone shifted significantly from serious to creepy kitsch.


And yet, for all its liberties, this is a decent Dark Shadows. In fact, it fares a lot better than the two films Curtis made in the early ‘70s - House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows. Back then, in a mad attempt to draw viewers and salvage the series, the filmmakers forced a kind of Hammer Horror sensibility to the material. It also reinterpreted storylines from the series in order to make both novices and those in the know happy. It really didn’t work. At least Burton and the gang took the basic tenets of Shadows and worked them into a weird amalgamation of family pride, declining business, and lust across the centuries. Yes, it mimics the whole Barnabas and Angelique aspect of the TV show, but it throws enough spanners into said storyline to keep it feeling fresh.


Not everyone sees it that way. Instead, the devoted devoured the film like so much penny candy and then spent the first few weeks of its release vomiting up their outrage like so much state fair fried food. They wanted the movie to fail since it failed them as students of the subject. Yet what many of them failed to have - yours truly among them - was perspective. In fact, it’s safer to say that many who dismissed the movie did so for what it wasn’t vs. what it actually was. Oddly enough, had Depp and Burton simply cast lookalikes and made a movie directly and wholly inspired solely on Curtis’ vision, it would more than likely be dismissed as a kind of creative grave robbing. The 2012 Dark Shadows can’t hold a creepy candle to the original ambition of a desperate TV producer circa 1968. On its own, however, it’s a success…even despite its source and its naysayers.


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