Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Let's Go to the Drawing Room for a Sedative

As this is a review, there be spoilers ahead.

My father grew up watching "Dark Shadows", and thusly when the Sci Fi channel aired reruns of the series when I was but a lad, he got me hooked on it. I've forgotten most of the ins and outs over the years, though I've been watching it again in preparation for the big screen adaptation put forth by my favorite partners in crime, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp.

The general consensus is that they've been languishing these past ten years or so. As you'll quickly learn on this blog, dear readers, I say screw general consensus. At least when it comes to the arts. True, "Corpse Bride" and "Alice in Wonderland" sort of dragged (although I liked them very much), but "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Sweeney Todd" were awesome in a can. Even when the trailers showed the direction heading towards what others have described as deliberate camp as opposed to the accidental type created on the show, I still had high hopes and high expectations for "Dark Shadows."

I have to admit I was sorely disappointed.

I have to say upfront that despite everything I'm about to say, I did enjoy the film. A lot. I'll buy it when it comes out and I'll probably watch it again and again. Nevertheless, parts of it left bad tastes in my mouth.

The rest of my family summed up their disappointment by saying "That was not Dark Shadows!"

I disagree. My feeling is that it was ALMOST Dark Shadows. They got so, so close and then tripped at the finish line breaking all their limbs in the process. And that's worse in a lot of ways. Now, I understand artistic licence better than anyone, but there's a limit.

I can understand simplifying Barnabas' backstory to fit a short prologue, but did they really have to have him state that he studied the occult just to set up a jab at McDonald's? On that note, I can totally understand playing Barnabas as a fish out of water. In the show, he adapted far too well and outsiders are Burton's specialty. But they made him too obvious. They over-played it. I can understand wanting to get Roger out of the way because he is kind of a douche, but he's a douche because he's a pompous, arrogant a-hole who seems to care little for his son. Whatever else he is, he has never been a petty thief. Carolyn as a Werewolf would be an interesting twist, and a great nod to Quentin without having to physically deal with him, if only it was the Carolyn we knew who, while having her rebellious moments, was a rich bitch at worst and a peppy coed at best. Not a pubescent sullen hippie (oxymoron?).

There were changes and new directions that I legitimately liked. I liked that Barnabas confided in Elizabeth (even though they totally threw that bit out with Barnabas being obvious again). I liked that Angelique literally cracked up, as if the magic that kept her going all these years made her literally a shell of the human being she once was. And I LOVED that they made Victoria Winters and Maggie Evans the same person as a nod to their interchangeability in all other adaptations outside the original show. But for everything they did right, two things went sour.

Who do I blame for this? I don't blame Johnny Depp. While some of the offenses might have been ad-libbed, I think he was just so stoked to step into the costume and put on his best Jonathan Frid (R.I.P.) impression to particularly care what he was saying. And he pulled it off gloriously, aping Frid's mannerisms and cadence like he was possessed by the man.

Does one blame Tim Burton? I really don't. While he did have control, his strength and focus for better or worse has always been in the visuals. And in that area he gave it his all (or at least his production/costume design teams did). Everything looked like "Dark Shadows". The characters (mostly) looked like they come back to us, with just a little hint of Burton's favorite color scheme so you'd know who was behind this. Also, only a true fan would make the first shot of Victoria Winters her reflection in the train window. Tim's my favorite director, but I recognize where he falls flat. In the end, he did everything I expected of him.

No, unless someone in the know tells me any different, I think the blame lies with the script. Sorry, Seth Graeme-Smith. "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" was awesome, but you just went too far this time. It's a shame, because the actual events, changed or not, work in a Dark Shadows movie. It's the hows and whys that got mixed up. Like introducing Laura Collins, the Phoenix! Alluding to the fact that she could be a Phoenix! Then having her show up as....just an ordinary ghost. See what I mean when I say "almost"?

So what would I have done differently? I want to make it clear that this is purely from an academic standpoint. Besides, this is one fan's opinions on another fan's work, not a condemnation of the original artist's ideas (so you still suck, Lucas Hateboys).

If I were handed a script that was exactly like the movie I saw, my first change would be in the beginning. Instead of killing off Joshua and Naomi, I'd introduce Sarah and kill her off, fueling Barnabas' obsession with finding out what happened (she could make a small appearance as a ghost later on). Next, I'd probably keep the changes to the vampire origin, but I'd have Joshua lock Barnabas up on Angelique's suggestion. I'd keep the changes as to where he's buried and keep the construction scene since he does need a lot to eat. But most importantly, I'd end the blatant culture shock once he and Elizabeth have discussed their deal. Oh, I'd have some culture shock gags after the fact, but they'd be subtle (I'd keep the Alice Cooper stuff, but he'll mistake the gender only once. Not four freaking times).

Next, Roger and Carolyn act more like themselves. Except Roger's the alcoholic, not Julia. This is what spurns Barnabas' threat and Roger's subsequent departure. Keep the "death" of Julia; you could even keep her trying to transfuse herself. But make the catalyst for that confrontation Barnabas' rapid aging from Julia's test. It only needs to be a ten-minute plot point, but it makes far more sense and gives the fans some reassurance. Keep the Carolyn Werewolf twist, have Angelique hint at Quentin by saying it's hereditary (and skips a few generations), and then maybe have Quentin show up after the credits as a sequel hook.

I'd probably change more, but if even these small things were changed it would have been a good Dark Shadows movie. So close, guys. So, so close.

P.S. Danny Elfman, you're my favorite composer, but would it have killed you to use more of the show's classic music cues? Just saying. That main theme is so iconic. Kudos for at least getting the feel right.

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