“People I love haven’t always loved me back.”
Six months ago, in July 1970, the Firesign Theatre released a record called Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, an avant-garde slice of psychedelic, time-traveling radio comedy that was mostly about a ’50s teen movie spoof called High School Madness. In the spoof, young Peorgie and his pal Mudhead investigate the theft of their school, Morse Science High, by their rivals, Communist Martyrs High School. Infiltrating Commie Martyrs, the two buddies find the mural from their school in a storage room, labeled “Mural: Auditorium, right rear. Heroic Struggle of the Little Guys to Finish the Mural.”
Meanwhile, six months later, as we cross the chasm between 1970 and 1971, that is exactly what lies ahead for Dark Shadows: a 13-week heroic struggle to wrap up this wild, untamed soap opera that has broken free of all ties to civilization as we know it. Dark Shadows has never really been about a girl on a train, a mad family and a lovestruck vampire. It’s about some writers, a mad producer, a cast of eccentric New York stage actors, and a lonely boom mic trying to break into show business, working feverishly on a shoestring budget to produce the strangest possible television show, for as long as they can get away with it. In the three months left between January 1st and April 2nd, they are going to finish this mural or die trying, or both.
Today, as you know, is New Year’s Day 1971, and Dark Shadows is pre-empted for a football game. On pre-emption days, this blog time travels into the future, for visions of Dark Shadows yet to come. So far, we’ve watched the 1970 movie House of Dark Shadows, the 1971 movie Night of Dark Shadows, the 12 episodes of the 1991 NBC revival and the 2004 WB pilot. We’ve learned a lot over these years that we’ve spent together about how to “remake” Dark Shadows, and, more importantly, how to avoid it.
Briefly, there are three reasons why you shouldn’t try to remake Dark Shadows:
#1. Dark Shadows was a process, not a story. The show used serialized storytelling, and when it was at its best, it quickly changed course to capitalize on the things that worked, and dropped the things that didn’t. Nobody planned for the show to feature a vampire, a witch, a mad scientist and a reckless werewolf from various time periods as its four main stars; it just evolved in that direction, because those actors were more interesting to watch than anybody else.
#2. That means that the overall “story” of Dark Shadows doesn’t translate to other media. It was invented anew every day, and doesn’t have a structure. The one contrary example is the 1795 storyline, which actually does have a satisfying beginning, middle and end, but it didn’t lead to a coherent next chapter; the show in 1968 became just a random jumble of mad ideas.
#3. Even if you try, you’re not going to get talented people to produce a faithful version of the story as it was presented on TV, because creative people don’t like being tied down to other people’s last-minute, implausible choices.
And that brings us, for this next-to-last pre-emption post, to the 2012 Tim Burton/Johnny Depp film, Dark Shadows.
Tim Burton is one of our more peculiar contemporary eccentric artistes of the film world, a director who seems to inhabit an Addams Family world of his own. He first came to public attention as the director of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, two visually inventive comedies that take place in very specific, immersive environments, as if the whole world has agreed to adopt the same idiosyncratic style, all at the same time. Burton then directed a couple of Batman movies back before they decided that Batman should be super depressing all the time, as well as Edward Scissorhands, which is basically Beetlejuice done as a sad fairy tale. Then he designed The Nightmare Before Christmas, a dark stop-motion fantasia that mixed the macabre and the cute together into an intoxicating combination of Edward Gorey, Charles Addams and Rankin/Bass, creating a black-hole Burtonverse of such gravity that he has never really been able to escape from it and do anything else.
The word that comes to mind for Tim Burton is precise. He has an exacting visual style, and he crafts every aspect of his films to deliver what he wants. It’s all tightly controlled and pointing in the same direction, and when he has something interesting to say, everything in the film works together to express something that no one else has ever done before. Unfortunately, most of the interesting things that he had to say went into The Nightmare Before Christmas, and he’s been kind of hit-and-miss ever since.
But when it was announced that he was working on a big-budget Hollywood version of Dark Shadows, everyone said yes, of course, because who else could do it? Dark Shadows is a sad, stormy fairy tale that mixes the macabre and the cute, it’s got a weird style all its own, and, like all Tim Burton projects, it’s not for everyone.
It was actor Johnny Depp who really wanted to make Dark Shadows in the first place. Depp was one of Burton’s most frequent collaborators, having played the leading role in Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd and Alice in Wonderland. Depp says that he was a big fan of the show when he was young, and he ran home from school to watch it, although he was born in mid-1963 and was therefore in kindergarten at best when the show was popular, so I don’t know what that’s about.
By 2012, Depp had starred in four movies in the top-grossing Pirates of the Caribbean series, so the studios were willing to let him drag Burton into whatever crazy they wanted to make. It first came up in conversation while they were making Sweeney Todd, and Burton was eager to follow Depp into another dark fantasy.
But, as I said above, successful creative people aren’t going to make a “faithful” version of whatever they’re making a version of; they want to add something to the world, not duplicate something that already exists. And besides, as I also said above, the story is a rambling parade of ridiculous ideas, so how do you even craft a coherent movie out of it?
“It’s a hard thing to try to capture,” Burton said. “It’s not the kind of thing you can remake because there were more than 1200 episodes and there was such an elusive tone to it. I’ve done things where you could say it’s a remake but I never considered this to be one, because there’s nothing to re-make. To be honest, it was more of a perverse challenge, trying to capture something where the tone was so unidentifiable. We had to sort of capture the spirit of that elusive thing of why you love something.”
Whether he did that successfully, of course, is up to you, and the film critics, and the box office receipts, and history. On the whole, it’s agreed that he didn’t.
“The only reason to see Dark Shadows,” said David Thomson in The New Republic, “is to discover how dire and pointless—how flat-out dreadful—a movie can be even when it has Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Helena Bonham Carter attached to its flimsy pretext.”
Our friend David Edelstein agreed in his NPR review: “The script by Seth Grahame-Smith is witless and meandering — and I wouldn’t mind the witless so much if it moved, or the meandering if it were droll… I can’t tell why Dark Shadows was made, apart from Johnny Depp’s wanting to play Barnabas.”
Everybody thought that Eva Green was terrific as Angelique, but nobody else seemed to have a real story. Anthony Lane in The New Yorker mentions the character of David, “whose mind was warped when his mother was lost at sea. But the film merely inspects his character before discarding it for something else, like a spoiled child opening birthday gifts—an impatience recurring so often in the movie that it comes to feel more pathological than structural.”
Manohla Dargis of The New York Times was an outlier, calling the movie “very enjoyable, visually sumptuous and, despite its lugubrious source material and a sporadic tremor of violence, surprisingly effervescent”, and praising Johnny Depp’s performance, saying that “it’s delightful to watch how the actor handles the vampire’s readjustment to the world of the living.” But what does The New York Times know?
The movie made $79 million in the US, putting it just barely above John Carter in the 2012 box office receipts, which was lambasted at the time for being one of the most disappointing box-office bombs of all time. This was the year that The Avengers made a record $623 million in the US, followed by The Dark Knight Rises with $448 million and The Hunger Games with $408 million. Dark Shadows made a profit overseas, ultimately earning $245 million worldwide against its budget of $150 million, but nobody was happy and the world moved on.
Personally, I have deeply mixed feelings about the movie, which basically divide evenly between the first half and the second half, as we’ll see.
At the time when it came out, of course, I was breathlessly excited that they were making a big-budget high-profile Dark Shadows. It was a year before I started this blog, and was the first time that most of the people that I know had ever heard of Dark Shadows from anyone but me. I was sick of explaining to people that it was a big hit in 1969, and I wanted Tim Burton to finally reintroduce the world to Barnabas and Julia and Angelique and Collinwood.
One of the early promotional images that they put out was this cast photo of everybody arranged stiffly around the drawing room. I was utterly thrilled, because I recognized it as a recreation of the bleak and marvelous 1967 cast photo at the top of this post. They even had Julia tilting her chin up to catch the light. Clearly, there were Dark Shadows fans involved in the production.
Now it’s eight years later, and when I mention Dark Shadows, people still don’t know what I’m talking about. They don’t even remember the movie.
The first version of the script, written in 2009, was the work of John August, who wrote Go, which I like very much, and two Charlie’s Angels films, which obviously I don’t, and then the Tim Burton films Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie. August later said:
“I went the Godfather route and really synthesized a lot of plot lines into it, so it was a very, very busy script, trying to get the full experience of what Dark Shadows was. My Dark Shadows was about a really messed up, crazy family in Maine and then a vampire shows up. It was very much a family drama/vampire epic, a big, Gothic romance set in 1970. I was really happy with it, and I think everyone was really happy while we first had the script.”
Unfortunately, that’s about all that I know about August’s script; if anybody has more information, I’d love to know more about what this script was like. I’ve seen people on forums saying that they wished Burton had used August’s script instead of the one that they used, but I don’t know if that’s based on anything specific, or just a general feeling that anything would be better than the script they used.
Anyway, they didn’t use it. At the time, Burton was directing Alice in Wonderland and Depp was doing another Pirates film, and when they got around to seriously working on Dark Shadows, they decided it was too late. Everybody says that they decided not to do August’s gothic drama because both the Twilight film series and the True Blood television series began in 2008, and therefore nobody wanted a romantic vampire story anymore. I don’t really know what to make of that, because it sounds like that was exactly the time that people were absolutely enthralled by romantic vampire stories, but you know creative people. They don’t like to be seen as repeating anybody else’s work, even if Twilight and True Blood were inspired by Dark Shadows in the first place.
So they turned to Seth Grahame-Smith, a novelist who had recently written the screenplay for a Burton-produced film adaptation of his 2010 novel Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. This movie received very poor reviews and barely made its money back overseas, but what the hell, let’s have him write Dark Shadows too.
Grahame-Smith didn’t really know the show, but wrote a script based on Burton and Depp’s notes.
“I set out writing a treatment for an entirely new story. That was done in collaboration with Tim and with Johnny. I started meeting with both of them, very early in the process, making sure the direction I was going was the direction they wanted to go in. My job was to add humor to the story. They both have wicked, dark senses of humor and a lot of the same influences in terms of films and art, and they’re both very excitable. When you’re sitting around with them, talking about ideas, they’ll jump out of their chairs and act something out. Their enthusiasm is infectious.”
Depp also talked excitedly about this process:
“It was almost like a jazz jam session. Tim would riff on something and that would feed me and then it would feed Seth. Ideas would start piling up. It all happened really quickly, because Tim and I had finally arrived at where we needed to be, in terms of the film, in terms of the story, in terms of the characters.”
Now, writing a coherent screenplay isn’t the same thing as jumping out of your chair and acting things out; it requires structure and focus, and thinking things through. That part didn’t happen very much.
Even during filming, Depp says that he was rewriting the movie every day from the makeup chair.
“It was a great experience to have Tim, every morning, come into the trailer and we would discuss the day’s work. If something felt odd, in terms of a scene, we would change it, and we would do that at the end of the day as well, for the following day’s work. Being that close to Tim with regard to story, and with regard to not just my character but other characters, was a real pleasure.”
Grahame-Smith said that he was basically writing for an audience of two:
“Tim would give me the bigger, broader notes about tone. An image would flash into his mind, and he’d say, ‘Work it in somehow if you can.’ Not surprisingly he approaches things in a very visual way. Whereas Johnny would really, really delve into the subtext of what’s going on as an actor, and would send me pages and pages of single space, typewritten thoughts. Some of it was praise: ‘I love what you’ve done here.’ Some of it was “I’m not so sure about this’. Some of it was ‘What if?’ And many of those ‘what ifs’ turned into things that are in the film.”
Needless to say, this is not the way that grown-ups write movies. This process was designed to privilege whimsical afterthoughts from an overly-caffeinated director and an actor who Grahame-Smith was not famous enough to say no to.
So this movie is the product of manic enthusiasm at every stage, constantly thinking and rethinking and getting excited about any new idea, especially if it’s funny.
Here’s another word from Grahame-Smith:
“One of the first conclusions we reached was that we shouldn’t be afraid to be funny. We wanted the movie to have some of that campiness that was in the original series, but didn’t want it to go so far it became a parody of itself. We wanted to make sure in addition to humor you had suspense. You had moments of real fright. You had moments of real drama. You had moments of real longing and even tears.
“We decided as long as the story of the family was strong enough, you had room to be funny and give the audience something to laugh at.”
That is an absolutely appropriate bargain to make: if the story of the family is strong enough, then it’s okay to go broad with the comedy. The problem is that this process didn’t produce a strong enough story for the family.
But here we are at the start of the film, establishing an economical little backstory for Barnabas, Josette and Angelique. It doesn’t involve all of the characters and twists of the original 1795 story, because they’ve only got nine minutes, and who has the time?
So here’s the wealthy, beloved Collins family setting up a business and a town, building a mansion and dicking around with the domestics. Barnabas loves a pretty young woman named Josette, and earns the wrath of the servant Angelique.
“Of all the servants I could have spurned,” he observes, “all the hearts I could have broken, I got the one with the secret. I got the witch.” It’s a clever line, setting up Barnabas’ arrogance and heartbreak, and fueling everything to come.
They want to get this done before the credits, so Angelique doesn’t do anything complicated like give Josette a reason to run to Widow’s Hill; she just drops a lock of hair into a bubbling cauldron, and Josette obediently marches to her death. This is, if you’ll pardon the expression, the Cliffs Notes version.
So Josette falls, and Barnabas follows, and Angelique makes with the curse.
And then, the fingers, which is hard for me to deal with. For some reason, Tim Burton decided to give Barnabas the enormous claws of the vampire from F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent German Expressionist film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, and Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake, Nosferatu the Vampyre. I can kind of see where Burton’s coming from, but it doesn’t work, and it just sits there in the movie and rankles people.
In the 1922 film, Nosferatu has huge fingers, because it’s a silent film and you need a visually arresting way to signal how much of an evil predator the title character is. It’s very effective, but it doesn’t leave a lot of room for stealth; this is not a creature that can pass for human.
But Barnabas Collins, as we know him, is a stealthy predator hiding under the surface of a polished, urbane distant relation, who walks into the house unbothered by suspicion until it’s time for him to strike. This is a core character trait for Barnabas, both in the original series and in this film adaptation, yet Burton seems to crush that aspect into a ball and throw it away in the first thirty seconds after Barnabas becomes a vampire. The growing fingers is literally the first thing that the audience sees, when Barnabas realizes what he’s become.
This was Burton’s idea — he insisted on it, even when Depp was unsure. Burton and Depp both talk about how important the long fingers are to the character, because it changes the way that he touches and experiences things. There are endless moments in the film of Barnabas running his fingers along whatever’s in sight, to justify the decision. I disagree with Burton and Depp on this. I think it’s weird for the sake of weird, and if it was in my power to ask for a recount, I would.
Anyway, the flashback barrels on, as we see Angelique lead a mob of ignorant villagers, to bind Barnabas in a box and bury him for apparently ever. End of flashback, now on with the show.
So I’m just going to go ahead and admit that I was disappointed that they didn’t do a Danny Elfman version of the original theme song, with Gothic lettering on the title. I recognize that that’s a silly thing to expect; it would be derivative, and I should grow up and understand that a film adaptation doesn’t have to pretend that it’s the original thing it’s based on. Still, “Nights in White Satin” is a boring song that does very little for me or the movie, so if it’s immature to want the real theme song then fine, I’m immature and I don’t care who knows it.
That said, at least there aren’t trick-or-treating children on the train like there were in the WB pilot, with prosthetics demons popping up and shouting RAAAH! to establish that this is supposed to be haunted-house scary, so consider the blessings counted.
This is Vicki, by the way, aka the Girl on the Train. The very first thing that we learn about her is that she isn’t Vicki, that she’s actually Maggie Evans who decides to change her name to Victoria Winters based on a poster, but I’m going to call her Vicki because it’s easier and anyway, she specifically asks me to.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I like the Maggie/Vicki instability here. It establishes that there’s something secret and wrong about this innocent-looking maiden, and it’s an acknowledgment that Vicki and Maggie’s identities have been inextricably tangled since 1967. Also, I think getting her name from a poster is clever, and a nice surprise.
This is Bella Heathcote, an Australian soap actress, in her first starring role. Tim Burton said that he cast her because “she looks like a person who’s been reincarnated,” and I’m not going to get in a fight with Tim Burton about who’s been reincarnated and who hasn’t.
And there’s something about this Vicki that makes her different from any of the previous versions; she’s self-possessed, unlike the hesitant original or the hair-trigger psychotic of the WB pilot. She doesn’t wait in the rain for someone to come and pick her up at the train station; she just takes her little suitcase to the side of the road, and makes some new friends.
As readers of this blog know, there are three steps to making the audience like a new character: make a friend, make a joke and make a plot point happen. The movie is going to spend the next thirteen minutes entirely fixated on making us like Vicki practically at gunpoint, and it’s going very well so far.
She’s already given us a taste of a plot point with the “my name is Maggie/Vicki” mystery, and meeting the hippies is the most transparent “make a friend” moment since the little girl said “Aunt Rhoda’s really a lot of fun” in the first episode of Mary Tyler Moore, making it okay for the audience to like Rhoda when she barges onto the set.
They even have a little blonde girl in the VW microbus, to give her personal stamp of approval. “So, where are you from, Veronica?” the young hippie says, poking her head into frame like a puppet.
“New York,” Vicki answers, “and it’s Victoria.”
“And it’s Victoria,” the girl parrots. “I love this chick, man!”
And then the Moody Blues join in, on the soundtrack: “And I love you… Yes, I love you! Oh-oh-oh, I love yoooooouuu!” Twice. Okay, fine, yes, Vicki is loveable. Consider us informed.
Meanwhile, we get a tour of the Collinsport set, which is astonishingly huge and beautiful. They built this whole thing from scratch, on the Pinewood Studios backlot outside London. They considered using a real fishing village, but it was impractical — they needed two canneries facing each other across the harbor, and didn’t want to deal with daylight and tides.
So this whole thing — the harbor, the canneries, the Blue Whale, the gas station, the movie theater, all the streets and cars and stores and everything — it’s all one big Disneyland-style outdoor set, constructed around a purpose-built water tank so big that they could sail real boats on it. The edges of the set are ringed with greenscreens so that they could key in the sea and the sky; everything else was built by hand.
I absolutely love this Collinsport; I think it’s cool and just a hair’s-breadth shy of convincing, a slice of Burtonesque artificial dream-come-true for Barnabas to skulk around in. I don’t like the fingers and the script has deficiencies, but you cannot fault the sets, the props and the costumes in this movie. They’re delightful, and they’re going to stay that way.
And here we are at the ruined Collinwood, which is a whole new vision for the premise of Dark Shadows. The show always featured a wealthy, powerful Collins family, with an enormous fuck-off mansion that impresses everyone. This movie has a different take: that the family used to be powerful, but are now in decline, and the mansion is a crumbling ruin badly in need of a haircut and shave, like the abandoned Old House of 1897 and 1966.
This is a strong new take on the situation, and it gives the family a problem that needs to be solved, right at the start. Approaching the moldering manse, Vicki gets several little moments to look at something unappetizing, and then make the conscious decision to be brave and resourceful.
As with downtown Collinsport, the set designers have a specific direction to follow with the Collinwood exterior, and they follow through all the way down to the details, like the moss-grown fountain, and the abandoned toys lying uncared-for on the front steps.
This isn’t a real house, of course, it’s a single-story facade built in a pine forest in Surrey, with the upper floors added digitally. The fountain, the courtyard and the retaining wall are all real in their detailed disrepair; everything else is conceptual.
They did a nice job constructing a new architectural plan, retaining some of the original features of the show’s Seaview Terrace, especially the central turret, which feels obligatory. That’s why using a mostly-digital Collinwood is a good idea, because nobody sane builds real houses like this.
There’s an eye-catching merman door knocker that Vicki gets to play with, solid and heavy, and the first hint of the mad Adventures Under the Sea prom theme that we’re about to be plunged into.
And here’s Willie Loomis, a comic-relief servant trapped in a movie that’s already a comedy. He’s the human equivalent of the mansion’s rundown decay, and he gets a few good lines, although the “punkins” scene goes a bit overboard.
Unlike the 2004 pilot, we don’t have to strip off his clothes, involve him in a Collins family treasure hunt research project, and ship him off with a flashlight to go grave robbing before the first commercial break. This isn’t that kind of Willie. This is the other kind.
Here we are in Collinwood at last, another gorgeous set that I’m going to be relentlessly positive about. This was shot at Pinewood Studios, and it’s 64 feet by 101 feet, and 32 feet in height; I don’t know the figures on the original set, but this is a lot of Collinwood all in one place. It’s got a blue and white wave pattern on the floor, bigger than life-size carvings of mermaids and mermen and a crystal octopus chandelier that I absolutely adore. Everything undulates.
They’ve never really paid attention to the Collins family’s line of business before, in any of the previous incarnations of Collinwood. They just brought their cameras into an existing mansion, and used whatever they had lying around. This is the first time that someone has given the place a Burton-level amount of detailed thought. I can keep going on about this forever, but it’s more my thing than yours, probably, so I’ll let it go.
And they’ve finally got the portrait right, which the previous remakes kept failing on. This one actually looks like the guy, and they give us a nice long look at it, and then Michelle Pfeiffer yells the name of the character, to make sure that we know it’s important. You’d be surprised how often a Dark Shadows screws up the portrait reveal; this is the first one since the original to nail it as it should be nailed.
Enter Elizabeth, appearing in near-silhouette at the top of the grand staircase, which looks like the prow of a grand, land-locked ship. And if you think that I love the set a lot, just wait until you hear what I have to say about Michelle Pfeiffer.
While she descends, Burton gives us a little look at Vicki right next to Josette’s portrait, which is exquisitely lit and framed at an unnatural angle, just to make sure that we recognize it. This is one of those precise Burton details that you can count on when you need one.
“Welcome to Collinwood,” Liz says, sweeping down the staircase. “You’ll have to imagine us on a better day.”
So I’m going to go ahead and tell you that I think Michelle Pfeiffer is tremendous, and I will not suffer any alternate opinions about her or the way that she plays Elizabeth. She takes on the role as a genuine, lightly-faded movie star, as Joan Bennett was, and she has an irresistible presence and impeccable timing.
Pfeiffer was the other legit Dark Shadows fan in the cast. She says that when she found out about the project, “I got so excited, I did something I never do. I basically grovelled for a part in the movie. I felt so uncomfortable but I knew I would kick myself if I didn’t, because I know how these things are, people are attached before you even know about it, so I thought I really have to do this.” She got the part. She reportedly watched the show in her trailer and in the makeup chair, and immersed herself in the true weirdness of the series.
She’s impressive, this Elizabeth, but there’s a half-apology lurking behind that tight smile. She’s aware that her life has turned out to be more disappointing than she’d hoped, but she’s going to live with it, because what choice does she have?
This is a real departure from the grand, bland Elizabeth of the 1991 series, and the scattered Liz of 2004. Michelle Pfeiffer is too important a resource to waste.
At this point, you can predict all of the feelings that I have about the huge, cluttered drawing room set, so feel free to extrapolate. I’ll just say that there’s a glass pineapple on the drinks cabinet, and there’s a lot of room for Liz to backact her way through the scene.
“How do you feel about the president?” she asks Vicki, and the governess replies, “I’ve never met him.” Liz stares at her, unsure how to evaluate this.
Vicki smiles, and shakes her head. “I don’t watch television.”
Liz arranges herself in a piano-related pose. “Do you think the sexes should be equal?”
“Heavens no,” Vicki answers, wide-eyed. “Men would become unmanageable.”
Liz takes a moment to enjoy a rare, genuine smile.
“I think we’ll get along just fine, Miss Winters,” she says, and proffers her hand to the new employee.
This is another example of the movie’s insistence that we like Vicki, setting up Michelle Pfeiffer as the arbiter of movie star taste, and then giving Vicki three funny lines in a row. Between the hippie girl and Elizabeth, it is now unanimous that Vicki has value and worth in the narrative, and they haven’t even counted all the votes yet.
There’s a blooper here, too, if you want one: Liz implies that “Miss Winters” filled out an application, but Vicki didn’t invent that name until she saw the poster on the train, a few minutes ago. Every version of Dark Shadows requires occasional bloopers, so the movie is living up to requirements so far.
Oh, and then there’s Chloë Grace Moretz, who’s clearly insane and another highlight of the movie. Carolyn is poorly served by the plot, which reveals that she’s a werewolf way later than it should and without any intermediate steps leading up to that revelation, but she’s really fun to watch and doesn’t have a single weak moment in the entire movie.
Moretz said that she prepared for the role by watching wolves and foxes and cats, which inspired her “weird and dainty but scary head movements.” I don’t know how animalistic she really looks, but she’s got the sarcastic teenager thing down, and I’ll spot her for the rest. Everything she does is surprising.
It’s Carolyn who takes us into the first family dinner scene, putting Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” on the record player, which is such an obvious soundtrack choice for Dark Shadows that it’s amazing nobody had ever done it before.
Oh, and then there’s Roger, and I guess a lot of this section is just going to be me saying how much I like actors. Jonny Lee Miller is weird and intense and handsome, and his Roger is sleazy and delightful.
He sits down grumbling about the pot roast, and then catches sight of Vicki across the table, which activates a subroutine that processes whether this is something he might get to sleep with. Liz introduces Vicki, and she says “It’s nice to meet you,” and he just sits there, tapping his fingers, still calculating his chances out to three decimal places. “Yeah,” he says, making unbroken eye contact. “Yeah. Nice to meet you.” And then he adjusts his jaw a bit.
This is obviously very different from Louis Edmonds’ urbane widower, but it fits this down-at-the-heels Collins family. Roger doesn’t get a hell of a lot to do in this movie, like most of the ensemble, but he makes me laugh every time I see him, and I will be bringing that up on a regular basis.
Then comes my beloved Dr. Julia Hoffman, mythopoetic trickster and the greatest character in fiction, and here I have to take issue. Helena Bonham-Carter has some funny lines in this movie — I especially enjoy the current “you’re the nanny, she’s the bitch” moment, for reasons that I can’t explain — but this is a diminshed role, and I can’t pretend to be objective about it. I’m glad that they recognized that Julia should be part of the ensemble, but they have profoundly underestimated her importance.
In the 1967 storyline that they’re referencing here, Julia was the main driver of the plot, quickly taking over the narrative and upsetting every applecart by force of personality and eyebrows. That ability to dominate through facial expression has been granted to Elizabeth in this movie — correctly, because it’s Michelle Pfeiffer and she’s the head of the family — but that means that Julia is sadly sidelined.
While I was waiting for the movie to come out, I bought the original score CD, and saw in the track listing:
Track 9: Hypno Music
Track 10: Killing Dr. Hoffman
Track 11: Dumping the Body
which disheartened me to a considerable extent. Still, like I said, she’s got some funny lines, and that’s something.
And then there’s David, played by Gulliver McGrath, who’s pretty much the cutest David of all time, and that’s a list that includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He’s tiny and haunted, and I like him very much. He doesn’t get much of a chance to do anything, either; it turns out that’s a systemic problem.
It’s time for our third and final Rhoda moment, when Vicki is officially liked by everyone who matters. David asks if Vicki was scared by his ghost prank, and Vicki looks very serious and says “Terrified beyond belief,” which earns her an adorable smile from the young set.
So that’s all we need, in order to like Vicki. She’s charmed the hippie girl, the movie star and the cute little boy, she’s made several jokes, and she’s got more than one interesting secret, given her resemblance to that portrait in the foyer.
There have been six actresses who played Victoria Winters over the course of almost five decades, and Bella Heathcote is the only one that I have ever liked. They will now proceed to fritter away that likeability for no reason at all. The film’s tragic flaw is that they don’t know what to do with Vicki, and ultimately this will send the mirrorball smashing to the floor, breaking the movie.
The problem is that Vicki didn’t actually do anything in 1967, except worry about people and get engaged to Burke. In the story that they’re paraphrasing, Vicki has no further plot points to contribute; she’s simply an inert object of desire for Barnabas and Burke to battle over. This was a problem in the 1991 series as well, where Vicki basically faded into the background, until it was time to catapult her into the past.
The movie knows it, and the only thing they plan to do about it is stick her in an underwater tank, and let a crab crawl out of her mouth.
“He’s coming,” murmurs the spectre of her death, and turns, glassy-eyed, towards her own oblivion.
And then Vicki follows the spirit to the octopus chandelier, where she turns, not of her own accord, and flips quietly backwards down the stairs, and out of sight.
And then she’s gone; we don’t see Vicki again for the next seventeen minutes. This is the baffling choice that will unravel the film.
But let’s move on; it’s not like we have a choice about it. We now enter the vampire comedy portion of the film, which begins with a ritual unboxing.
Now, in all previous versions of this story, the mystery box is crowbarred by a Willie Loomis of varying levels of hotness, but this film breaks the mold and posits one of those late-night construction crews that I guess they have in Maine during the off-season.
This establishes that the emergence of a supernatural serial killer isn’t the result of an individual sinner helping himself to other people’s ancestral fortunes; it’s a natural consequence of the growth of Collinsport. The evolution of the town is a major theme in the movie, from the seventeen-nineties to the nineteen-seventies, and Collinsport has changed; nobody remembers that eerie night when we buried something radioactive here. They skimped on the long-term waste-disposal security measures, and sure enough, here’s a new civilization who feels like digging stuff up just to see what’s on the other side. Things are changing so much in 1972 that old monsters can be released without anyone understanding that’s what they’re doing.
So that brings us to the comedy massacre scene, where Barnabas chews his way through ten dudes in about fifty seconds. It’s mostly accomplished off-camera with a lot of swoosh sound effects and strangled screams, and the absolute bare minimum of gore and red paint; it’s like the inverse of the House of Dark Shadows finale.
They do this as a mass murder drinking spree because they have to establish that he’s an evil vampire, but they’ve decided in this version, correctly, that the only way to make this character make sense is if he draws the line at attacking family members. The previous three remakes in 1970, 1991 and 2004 all made a point of getting a Collins neck into his jaws almost instantly, but this Barnabas actually cares about the well-being of his family, so you need to get the same thrill in a different way. If you can’t use a high-quality victim like Carolyn, then you go for quantity instead, and that’s why both of his big bite scenes are scaled-up peer-group destruction.
One little detail that I like here is that Barnabas’ signature wolf’s-head cane is made of (mock) scrimshaw, rather than silver, because in this world, vampires can’t touch silver, and also it’s another way of emphasizing the Collins’ seafaring history. The props department is sweating the small stuff, and I appreciate it.
And then there’s the McDonalds gag, the first moment that Barnabas is confronted with the new world he’s arrived in. He has no cultural context to understand what this is, and he connects it to the big yellow M in the illuminated manuscript that he was reading in the opening sequence: “Mephistopheles!” There are probably people who thought this was silly and unbecoming a serious important vampire film, but I think it’s clever and it makes me laugh.
Ditto the “curious terrain” scene, as he discovers an asphalt freeway and doesn’t understand what it’s for. It’s played for comedy, but I think it’s interesting that no one has ever done this before. In all of the other versions of Dark Shadows, Barnabas simply rises gently from the mystery box and moves in next door, magically understanding all of the new devices and cultural norms without making any curious mistakes.
In the original story, that was more-or-less intentional, because they wanted to leave it as an open question whether Barnabas was actually a vampire, not showing his fangs for a long time, and not even using the word “vampire” until way later than you would expect. So they did some spooky “never drink wine” moments, where Barnabas would make an obscure private joke about “living” that the rest of the cast wasn’t supposed to catch on to, but they never showed him being puzzled by electrical appliances, or anything else that would indicate that he’s from a prior century.
Then the remakes all followed suit, so Barnabas has never really had culture shock before, which he should, because the late 60s were kind of a culture shock even for the people who lived in that culture.
So Burton, Depp and Grahame-Smith are basically the first people to realize this obvious fact, that Barnabas should be surprised by the world that he finds when he returns to the surface of the earth. And they only think of it because they’re making a comedy, and having a sense of humor makes you smarter and more curious.
To expand on that for a moment, I’m going to spring a little quote on you, from a 1931 Dorothy Parker book review in The New Yorker.
Thus Professor Paul Elmer More raises a thin and querulous pipe in his essay on Longfellow — I think it is — to say that there were those who claimed that Longfellow had no humor — of whom I am the first ten. All right, suppose he hadn’t, he says, in effect; humor may be all very well for those that like it (“Only fools care to see”, said the blind man), but there’s no good making a fetish of it.
I wouldn’t for the world go around making fetishes; yet I am unable to feel that a writer can be complete without humor. And I don’t mean by that, and you know it perfectly well, the creation or the appreciation of things comic. I mean that the possession of a sense of humor entails the sense of selection, the civilized fear of going too far. It keeps you, from your respect for the humor of others, from making a dull jackass of yourself. Humor, imagination, and manners are pretty fairly interchangeably interwoven.
When Dan Curtis and his associates made the 1991 Dark Shadows reboot, they approached it as a serious romantic drama, so they thought, Let’s only shoot Ben Cross from below, to make him look larger and more impressive! And they didn’t pay attention to the people with a sense of humor, who said, yeah, but that means you’re going to be looking up his nose for the entire series. And that is why they made dull jackasses of themselves, for 12 weeks in a row, on national television.
So for the first time since Sam Hall brought comedy to Dark Shadows in 1967, funny people are thinking about what it would mean to be brought back to life after a hundred and ninety-six years, and landing, specifically, in 1972.
Here’s Johnny Depp, on that decision:
“The thought of this very elegant man of the 1700s, having been cursed and locked away for 200 years, coming back to 1972 — maybe the worst time, aesthetically, in human existence, where people accepted everything from macramé jewelry and resin grapes to lava lamps — sparked a whole series of ideas. We thought, what a great way to incorporate this vampire, being the eyes we never had back then, the eyes that can see the absurdity in those things.”
And Tim Burton:
“That was a very uneasy, strange period. It was a time that was strange then and it’s strange now. I guess you can say that about any era, but that was weird then and it’s remained weird to me. Everything was in a slight transitional state at that time. Music, war, everything was changing and so it just felt like a time that Barnabas, being an out of place person, felt right, like a weird bubble of time.”
And they’re right; the early 1970s were a weird time, partly because the 1960s were so short. People talk about “the Long Sixties”, stretching from around 1957 to 1973, but I think it was actually “the Short Sixties,” which lasted about three summers. The Monterey Pop Festival and the Summer of Love was in 1967 and Woodstock was August 1969, and then the whole thing came to a crashing halt at the Altamont Speedway Free Concert in December ’69.
What we think of as “the ’60s” is the free love and the Age of Aquarius, and the hippies certainly saw themselves as a civilization-changing movement, but Altamont proved that doing your own thing without adult supervision doesn’t work out very well, and the whole thing passed after just a few years. The hippies that we see later in the film actually agree that they’re relics from another time, and they’re just kids. By 1972, everybody’s got cultural whiplash, hence the macramé and resin grapes.
The audience is getting it from all directions. We’re amazed by the alien quality of the 1972 record shop, but we’re also shocked by Barnabas, who is obviously a blood-soaked monster man, and why doesn’t anyone notice?
Johnny Depp’s Barnabas makeup is sort of a joke all by itself, and your experience of watching the movie is going to depend heavily on whether you feel like going along with it or not.
Jonathan Frid’s Barnabas eased his way into the Collins family by looking like a normal human who happens to speak in a slightly old-fashioned way. Depp’s Barnabas is more in the German Expressionist Nosferatu style, even after they wash all the gore off his face. He’s self-evidently not a human being — he’s cadaverous and bone-white, with alien fingers, and he only goes out in the sun with an umbrella and a strong pair of wraparound sunglasses. He makes obviously archaic references, and doesn’t understand how television works. So why doesn’t everyone instantly recognize him as a vampire?
The fact is, this is a comedy at heart, and the joke takes place inside the tension between what we see on screen and the way that people would respond in real life. This is a different way to approach the material than anything that we’ve seen before, and the quest for fresh perspectives is going to be a major concern in the War for Dark Shadows posts over the next three months.
If Dark Shadows indeed has a future as a part of the American consciousness, then it’s going to have to compete with all of the similar ideas, to stake its claim for why it should be remembered and passed along. It’s a process of natural selection, where the strongest ideas tend to thrive, and the weakest tend to wither and die. Dark Shadows is no stranger to that kind of process, as I said above; that’s how we got a vampire soap opera in the first place, because the vampire was more interesting than anything else on the show.
But if Dark Shadows is going to compete with other stories in the American pop cultural environment, then it’s helpful to remember that organisms do better when they’re adaptable. Staying exactly the same in a changing environment is a very bad long-term strategy.
So, yes, Barnabas walking around with white clown makeup and blood all over his cravate is silly and theatrical, but if you can’t accept silly and theatrical things, then why are you a Dark Shadows fan?
Dark Shadows is one of the strangest and therefore best television shows of all time. It doesn’t need prestige, and wouldn’t know what to do with it if it had any. This is not a sweeping epic romantic drama. It is a silly late ’60s daytime soap opera, and if you want it to be anything else, then that desire is not helping you adjust to life. This is as good a time as any to let it go.
And if you need proof that this is a legitimate version of Barnabas Collins, just look at the disgust on his face as he approaches his run-down mansion.
“My beloved Collinwood,” he says, distress rising in his voice. “What have they done to you?”
This is a guy who recently murdered ten strangers, who were presumably real people with feelings and families, and just dropped them where they lay and forgot all about them. He said “I’m terribly sorry” to the last guy, quivering in his grip and gasping for breath, but he didn’t really mean it; that was just for the sake of a punchline.
Serial killing is okay with him, if he’s hungry, but falling short with the home repairs is a terrible shock. Yeah, that’s our Barnabas.
That being said, the encounter with Willie is shticky and draws more attention to itself than it should. Snoring under hypnosis and being confused about the year is not amazing scenecraft. Still, the line “Hear me, future dweller” has some punch to it.
And I love the Collinwood foyer reveal, just as much as the last time they did it, fifteen minutes ago.
Barnabas goes crazy over the rich decor, drawing our attention to the details. “The opulence and complexity of this magnificent chandelier should only be found in the palaces of nobility,” he says, and then they keep the camera locked onto it for more than ten seconds, which is appropriate, because it really is spectacular. Even when Barnabas moves on to the fireplace, the shot remains fixed there, pulling slowly away from the chandelier, as if it’s reluctant to let it go.
But the fireplace is worth looking at too. “Sculpted entirely of the most exquisite Carrara marble,” Barnabas coos, “from Firenze, Italia, each joint containing a single pearl.”
This is all a reference to episode 214, when Barnabas gave Vicki a tour of the Old House, and went on about the plaster being made from crushed clamshells and horsehair. Barnabas elevates the place, turning what seemed like a dusty junkpile into something grand, by the depth of his emotional response to it. As Barnabas did, as Barnabas does.
The kids are appropriately befogged by this ghoulish intruder, who looks like a portrait and talks like a madman. But David quickly accepts him, and introduces himself, so that’s another Rhoda moment, if you need one.
And then here comes Michelle Pfeiffer, once again making a grand entrance down the staircase. They’ve basically constructed this entire set around having a place for Michelle Pfeiffer to look commanding and important. I agree with this design aesthetic.
Liz takes Barnabas into the drawing room, and here we see that tactile Tim Burton “vampires feel with their fingers” concept at work. Barnabas always touches everything in every scene, poking at the fireplace seahorse, and scratching his talons across the decor. I think it’s an interesting character trait, and it’s fun to see how Depp plays it, although again, I wish they hadn’t given him a set of fourth knuckles just to make the point.
But there’s a funny moment here, when Barnabas turns and locks eyes with a 70s troll doll, and recoils a little. He takes a moment to consider touching the doll, and decides not to risk it. Then he passes by the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots in favor of touching the Operation game, and spares a second for, yes, the resin grapes.
And then they do something that’s so important, it’s amazing that nobody thought of doing it before: they make Liz a movie star, and give her something to do.
In the original show, Elizabeth didn’t have anything to do with the Barnabas storyline, because she was busy being blackmailed by Jason. The remakes don’t include Jason, but they’ve all continued the policy of keeping Liz in the background, with no plot points of her own. Making the head of the household a mostly-silent figurehead has been a real problem in the previous remakes, because they’ve been stories about the Collins family that pretty much ignore the entire Collins family.
But you’re not going to go to all of the expense of hiring Michelle Pfeiffer, just to have her sit in the drawing room and drink tea. She needs to be the story’s representative of the Collins family, the quiet eye of the storm, and that is a decision that Burton, Depp and Grahame-Smith got one hundred percent right.
So as Barnabas is walking around fingering the furnishings, Elizabeth picks up a knife, ready to do battle with this creepy stranger.
He wants to prove that he belongs here at Collinwood, and opens up one of the hidden doors next to the fireplace.
“That’s where I keep my macramé,” Liz deadpans.
He turns with a moue of distaste. “A disgraceful misuse,” he sneers.
I don’t really have any comments to make, I just think it’s funny and I wanted to post a picture of the macramé.
And so Elizabeth gets to be brave and cool, as Barnabas gradually reveals the obvious truth: that he’s a vampire, their eighteenth-century ancestor returned to semi-life. Even when he approaches for a bit of delicious DS backacting, she gives a slight shudder, but remains where she is, unwilling to show weakness.
This is what Elizabeth should have been, in all those other remakes: confident, strong, the person who holds the family together. That means she needs to be the one who knows what Barnabas really is. Barnabas bonds with Liz, instead of the strange doctor from out of town.
As a viewer very much in the front row at the meeting of the Julia Hoffman Appreciation Society, I’m sorry that that decision reduces Julia’s importance in the story, which leads to some regrettable consequences later on. But thinking about this from a strict storytelling point of view, it is absolutely the right thing to do. It puts the Collins family where they belong, at the heart of the story.
And I like all of the little details of the hidden catches and secret mechanisms of the fireplace, which were all made as mechanical props that actually worked. It gives the journey down into the underworld below Collinwood a sense of grand importance.
It’s just a really, really good scene, is what I’m saying, and if anyone wants to make any more Dark Shadows then they need to make sure it’s at least as good as this scene; otherwise, they are of no further use to me.
Liz keeps a tight grip on her knife. “So that means that you’re…”
“A vampire, madam,” Barnabas admits. “Yes. And most regrettably so. But more importantly, I am a Collins, and I give you my word of honor: neither you, nor any under this roof, need fear my cursed nature.”
This is the big question that a Barnabas story has to figure out: who is Barnabas? Is he a villain, or a protector? In House of Dark Shadows, the answer was decidedly villain; he ended up killing almost everyone in the movie. In the 2004 WB pilot, they actually planned for Barnabas to be the Collins family’s protector. They started with him draining and almost killing Carolyn, which didn’t really fit that narrative, but they played the scene where he realizes that the woman he hunted was a Collins as if he felt bad about it.
Here, for the first time, Barnabas doesn’t snack on the family, and while the oath that he makes doesn’t end up applying to everyone under this roof, it’s a convincing plot point and gives Barnabas a real objective: to help the family.
So this scene, this bargain that they strike, gives us two really good actors with crazy makeup, in a world of exquisite sets and costumes and funny props, enacting an interesting and believable plot point. It doesn’t make sense to me that there are fans who defend the 1991 series, which hardly had a single good scene in the whole twelve hours, and also say that this movie is an abomination. By any reasonable aesthetic, the movie up to this point is clearly better in every way except the fingers.
I mean, you can hate this movie if you want to, because it’s clearly not for everybody. But then don’t talk to me about Ben Cross and his nostril-cam, which is just as silly but with worse actors, no jokes, boring sets and gimmicky camera angles.
Breakfast with the family, the scene that comes up next, is also heavy on the pleasurable details. The murals in the dining room are really fun, showing a calm sea behind the family…
and a stormy, dark nightmare behind the lunatic monster that has invaded their family.
This is the moment where it’s absolutely not the Dan Curtis story anymore. This is clearly a Tim Burton story, about a crazy monster whose special talents and sideways perspective end up saving the day. That was the theme of Burton’s Beetlejuice in 1988 and Edward Scissorhands in 1990, and that’s what Burton thinks monsters are for. In fact, that’s what Burton thinks Tim Burton is for. He’s something of a strange creature himself, always dressed in black, with deliberately unkempt hair and a head full of weird ideas. He wants to be your friend anyway.
So yes, it should be obvious to everyone in the scene that Barnabas is a lunatic monster, and that is basically the point. You could tell that Edward Scissorhands was different too, but he had a good heart, and deserved a place in the world. That’s what they’re trying to do with Barnabas.
This gives Liz some funny moments, when she gets to make up transparently crazy lies to cover for Barnabas’ not-a-secret secret. Also, her earrings are macramé owls, which means that this an objectively good scene. If anybody asks who cares about Liz’s earrings, then the answer is that I do, because that is how cinema works. If you don’t want earrings to matter, then you should be reading books.
Then Julia comes in and has a couple of funny lines, and Roger sits there and does some funny Jonny Lee Miller expressions, and it’s just a great scene overall.
I’m sure that many people reading this post hate this film like poison, and you’re currently wondering if I’m just going to go on about how much I like everything, and is it really worth your time to read the rest of this long-winded apologia? For those people: don’t worry, I am going to be very critical of this film around the halfway mark. But this is the good part of the film, and I’m enjoying myself.
Here’s another direct lift from the two-teens, as Vicki is introduced to Barnabas, and he says, “Surely you do not let them call you ‘Vicki’. A name like Victoria is so beautiful, I couldn’t bear to part with a single syllable of it.”
This is actually a lightly-paraphrased quote from the show; Barnabas says this when he’s introduced to Vicki in episode 212. That line ended up in the movie, and the clamshells and horsehair thing was paraphrased from episode 214, which indicates that Seth Grahame-Smith watched the first week of the Barnabas storyline, and then he gave up and did something else.
So far, this movie has given us several Dark Shadows standards that have been rethought and presented in surprising new ways, and here’s another example. This scene introduces Angelique, as we’ve never seen her before: successful.
In the previous remakes, the sinister soap vixen pops up out of the fireplace, or needs to be freed from some swamp ritual holding spell. This movie gives us a whole new vision of what Angelique can be, and it’s intoxicating.
This is the witch finally getting what she wanted: money, fame, power, adored by all. She has a fancy car and a tailored suit, and everyone shouts hello to her as she passes by. She gives them all a broad smile and a cheery wave, and as soon as she’s around the corner, her face falls into an expression of weary disgust.
It’s a new idea, another example of looking at the story from a comedy perspective. Of course the gorgeous, intelligent, charismatic sorceress wouldn’t just skulk in the shadows for two hundred years. She has used her time off effectively, and twisted the whole town to suit her own image.
This movie is the story of Collinsport, boom and bust, which is another new idea that Dark Shadows hasn’t thought of before. There are essentially two ruling factions: the Collins family, now in decline, and Angelique, triumphant.
The two opposing canneries facing each other across the harbor are the center of the town’s fortunes. She’s pulling up in her sports car in front of Angel Bay, her thriving business, and on the other side of the harbor, we see the Collins cannery, derelict and gradually falling to pieces.
This idea is addressing another problem that the three previous remakes didn’t. When the show began, it was partly a business soap, with early storylines about Elizabeth and Roger fending off the advances of the bitter and powerful Burke Devlin, who wanted nothing more than to take the Collins business apart, in revenge for past wrongs. The first eight months of the show had a lot of lawyers and accountants, and all of that was correctly dropped when the monsters took focus, because it was boring and there was no real reason to care about the cannery. Dan’s three remakes just pretended that the business hardly existed; the only thing that mattered was that the Collins family was rich.
But if we’re making Elizabeth and the Collins family important again, then it makes sense to put the family business back in play.
This is Eva Green, looking in the mirror so that Angelique can physically adjust her human mask into something that looks like a smile. Green is a French actress who has basically never played a normal human being; her first film was The Dreamers, where she was involved in an incestuous three-way relationship with her twin brother. She played Morgan le Fay in Camelot and a Bond girl in Casino Royale, and her performance here is just as highly-tuned as you would imagine. Four years later, Burton cast her as the lead in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and correctly so. She is unreal and unforgettable.
She’s also the only thing in the film that the critics liked. David Edelstein called her “a loose-limbed, glittering-eyed seductress-cum-terminator — and too much woman, if you ask me, for Depp’s lightweight ghoul.” Anthony Lane said that “Green has single-handedly taken it upon herself to refurbish the brazen, baroque, and sadly neglected tradition of the vamp”, and David Thomson said she was “the only person who seems to believe in this project and thus the only person worth looking at.”
They are correct. Green’s Angelique is a nutty, glamorous camp confection, who gradually steals focus over the course of the movie, leading to a climax that’s mostly Angelique enjoyably disintegrating. That’s not a good thing, as we’ll see, but Eva Green has shown up for work today.
And look how gorgeous the colors are in this cannery scene: everyone is in dark ocean blue, with bright, blood-red accent colors throughout the scene, matching Angie’s red sports car and the sparkly evening dress she’ll wear later on.
The workers are practically identical: they’re all young men, thin and dark-haired, all with short haircuts visible under their mandatory white hats. Go watch this scene, as Angelique walks through the factory floor. At every step, you see more identical workers, scuttling all over the frame, each of them wearing or holding or pushing something with that same red accent color. It’s the kind of grandstanding visual flourish that P.J. Hogan was trying to do when he directed the 2004 WB pilot, except P.J. Hogan is an idiot, so it didn’t work.
And look at that, for a shot. The open coffin, the mayhem it wrought, and Angelique standing above, gazing down at her handiwork. This is Dark Shadows, for the first time, done with intentional style.
We’re forty minutes into the movie at this point, and it’s time for the two main characters to have a scene together. Angelique sh’booms her way into the Collinwood foyer, ignoring anybody who tries to tell her that she doesn’t actually own the place.
“My,” she purrs, admiring the effects of her handiwork over the last two centuries. “We’ve let this place go to hell, haven’t we? Right where it belongs.” And now the movie is about something.
Once she’s got Barnabas alone in the drawing room, he tries to take control of the scene. He sputters, “How dare you defile my manor with your noxious —”
And then she kisses him — a long clinch, that ends in his inevitable surrender — and then she takes a look at him, appraising him like an antique. “It’s really you,” she smiles, and then moves on.
Once again, Barnabas attempts to set the agenda — “How dare you place your wicked lips upon me?” — but she doesn’t take any notice.
“I remember this place being less depressing,” she says, throwing her coat casually over whatever’s handy. Then she turns to face him, prowling around the room. “I also remember the two of us having a lot of fun.” She locked him in a box and buried him outside a McDonalds.
“Here…” she grins, running her hindquarters over the piano keys.
“And here,” she finishes, settling on the settee.
Now, one thing you should notice is the color palette in this scene: the same dark ocean blue and deep blood red that we saw at the Angel Bay cannery, a few minutes ago. In the previous drawing room scenes, there were some red curtains at various places in the background, but all of a sudden they’re dominating the scene, demonstrating that yes, Angelique does actually own this place, and the only reason she’s letting the Collins family use it is because she hasn’t squashed them all like bugs yet.
And she flashes that mocking, madwoman grin, and yes, if anyone wants Angelique, then this is the one you should call. Her love and her lust and her pain are all there, each of them twinkling just below the surface, and she’s unpredictable and just so much fun to watch.
“Poor, sweet Barnabas,” she says, “things have changed since you were taking your little nap. My Angel Bay is Collinsport now.”
Then she does this, and if posture was a special effect, this would be the Avengers fighting Thanos on the surface of Titan. You’re not going to excuse yourself and go buy some popcorn while Eva Green is doing this on a movie screen. This is visually arresting, and there is no way around it.
Barnabas and Angelique say funny words at each other, and at the end she has a great line about being afraid of the sun, but really this scene is just for spectacle: two mad, charismatic actors throwing themselves around the room and being crazy at each other.
And then there’s another good scene, because we’re nice people and we deserve one.
Angelique leaves, and Elizabeth talks things over with Barnabas, who’s moody and self-absorbed. “Why must I alone bear the rotten fruit of our cursed family tree?” he complains. This is a thing that Barnabas does; it’s probably the most Fridian line in the movie.
But as he slumps down and checks off his personal list of tragedies, it’s undercut by a comedy moment, as he rests on the electric piano and inadvertently turns on a little funky pre-programmed beat.
Now, I’m sure that Dark Shadows fans who actually believe in Barnabas’ tragic love story probably think that this scene is degrading and stupid. Personally, I think that Barnabas is a self-pitying drama queen who refuses to take responsibility for the terrible choices that he makes at every moment of his life, and this scene makes me smile just thinking about it.
What saves it from being irredeemably silly is that Elizabeth comes along and smoothly switches off the piano beat, and gives Barnabas a pep talk.
“You kept the family business afloat,” she says, “and tried to keep the manor from falling apart.” She puts a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “You fought on, Barnabas. In your own crazy and miserable way, you fought on, until they had to drag you away and lock you in an iron box to keep you from fighting.”
It works, because Michelle Pfeiffer gets another good character moment, where she gives Barnabas a pep talk that she only partially believes. I don’t know how we lived all those years without Michelle Pfeiffer playing Elizabeth.
So yes, I know that the people who hate this movie are just shaking their heads by this point, calling me twelve kinds of names for being such a Fan-in-Name-Only Burton apologist. Don’t worry, there is a specific moment in this film when all of a sudden it starts to suck and pretty much stays there, and that moment is exactly nine minutes away.
But first we have the training montage! The Carpenters start singing their sprightly hit “Top of the World”, as Barnabas strikes a pose in front of the fireplace and summons an army of carpenters and painters and chandelier-cleaners in an alchemical ritual that improves the house, the family, the business and the movie in general.
I love this montage, and I’ll tell you why. My personal taste in television and movies can be summed up in a few words: I like visually-inventive comedy soap opera narratives, with science-fiction/fantasy elements and musical numbers, and the more of those requirements that are satisfied, the more I like it. That means I like Doctor Who (which has everything except the musical numbers) and The Muppet Show (which has everything except the soap opera). Twin Peaks, Legion and The Umbrella Academy actually check every box. Dark Shadows does, too, but not very often — there’s just a couple musical numbers during the run of the show, doing “Shadows of the Night” in episode 786 and “I Wanna Dance with You” in episode 882.
But this version of Dark Shadows gives me what I want, which is three musical numbers in the same movie, and this montage is number one.
The montage includes a running gag about Barnabas trying to get to sleep without his coffin, with the elderly Mrs. Johnson not noticing that he’s hanging upside down like a bat, or curled up on the top shelf of the linen cupboard. This is another moment that separates the people who think Dark Shadows is serious drama from the people who actually understand Dark Shadows, and all I can tell you is that the scene is going to keep existing in the world whether you like or not, so you might as well relax and enjoy a well-played moment of silly vampire comedy.
And this shot is just a dream that repays a tap of the pause button, as the family opens the doors of the decrepit old cannery, and every character registers disappointment and disgust in their own individual way. Jonny Lee Miller just goes ahead and makes an obvious comedy grimace, but he doesn’t get enough to do in the movie, so he wants to take the opportunities he has.
This is another funny Roger background moment, where he sneers at workers and makes a little clapping motion to get them to work faster, and then just stands there taking a drag off his cigarette. I really wish Roger was in this movie, I think he would have been a lot of fun.
I also want to take this moment to praise the conceit that Barnabas can walk around outside in the day, as long as he wears the most Burtonesque possible costume, with silly sunglasses blinders and a black umbrella that is pure 1993 Halloweentown.
This does undercut the whole concept of a vampire, but if Barnabas was only active at night, that would disqualify him from being in a whole bunch of scenes like this one, and who wants a main character that can’t appear in half the movie?
And then there’s the linen cupboard moment, which I love, because Barnabas glares at Mrs. Johnson from his nook atop the towels, as if he’s really pissed that she’s letting the light in and waking him up. He just lies there, looking increasingly grumpy, and it’s super cute.
And just when you thought we were done with the fish-out-of-water gags, Barnabas takes the back of the TV off and shouts “Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!” We’re about five minutes past the fish-out-of-water gag stage, but I’ll allow it, because it’s Barnabas battling television, just like he did nonstop from 1967 to 1971.
There is one thing about this sequence that bothers me, which is that “Top of the World” was released in 1973, and they made a big deal about telling us that this movie was specifically set in 1972. There’s another 1973 song reference in a few minutes, so why not just set the movie in 1973? This matters to nobody but me.
We see a moment of Barnabas and Vicki by the sea reading Erich Segal’s Love Story, which is funny if you lived in the 70s. This a cute montage moment, but it creates a splintering crack in the audience’s experience of the movie, which is responsible for the total collapse of the film in the second half. I will be coming back to this scene when the movie suddenly breaks, in exactly six minutes and thirty seconds.
Finally, they pay off all the Barnabas sleeping gags with Barnabas getting a coffin delivered, and then waking up refreshed for the first time, which I think is funny but recognize is not for everyone.
The sequence finishes with the bookend to the earlier family-at-the-cannery scene, and now the family is smiling and proud of their magically refreshed fortunes. There’s a quick shot of the workers, and you can see that there are both men and women, with different hairstyles…
and across the harbor at Angel Bay, the workers are all identical dark-haired guys with bright red gloves. I don’t know if anybody ever noticed this little detail before — I only noticed it because I’m taking all these screenshots — so it’s nice that after eight years, at least somebody appreciates this utterly unnecessary bit of visual flourish.
We’re not in the bad part of the movie just yet, but the end of the happy makeover montage signals that rough seas are ahead. This is a scene of Barnabas hypnotizing Christopher Lee, basically just for the metafictional thrill of having a vampire hypnotize Christopher Lee.
Then there’s a little Roger moment that’s basically just there so that Jonny Lee Miller can make some funny Roger faces, which as far as I’m concerned he can do as much as he likes.
And finally we get an actual Barnabas/Julia scene. Julia hasn’t been in the movie for fifteen minutes, and you’d be well within your rights to have forgotten about her completely by now. But here she is, and that crack in the movie is coming, just lurking and ready to swallow us whole.
Like I said earlier, with Liz in the Barnabas-confidant role, Julia doesn’t really have much to do in the movie. But she’s very precise in her movement and delivery, and she’s funny, so that’s something. She takes a sedative at the beginning of the scene and then hypnotizes someone, so this is definitely a movie that understands Julia to some extent.
And then the movie falls to pieces, all at once and irrevocably.
In this scene, Barnabas is sitting in Carolyn’s room, asking her for advice on how to court a woman of this time period. He hasn’t mentioned this as a goal yet, so it’s a new development.
And when Carolyn says, “You obviously mean Vicki,” at that precise moment, you suddenly realize that Vicki — mad, likeable, haunted, funny Vicki — has had literally one word of dialogue in the last thirty-six minutes. That word was “Hi”.
They spent the first twenty minutes of the movie making sure that everyone in the audience understood exactly how fun and cool and important Vicki is. They even imported a cute blonde hippie girl, for the express purpose of convincing us that we all love Vicki. And then Barnabas came out of the box.
And now — when the movie finally remembers that Vicki is important, and we ought to get back to her — she’s not even in the scene. We should be watching Vicki and Barnabas interact, and all we have is Barnabas talking about her with someone who doesn’t want to have this conversation anyway.
“She likes to pretend she’s rock ‘n roll,” Carolyn sneers, “but she’s a Carpenters kind of chick, for sure.” And the audience asks: When did Vicki pretend that she was rock ‘n roll? The last time we saw her, she was saying things like “heavens, no.”
So this is the problem with ensemble movies. They’re difficult to construct, because you have to make sure that every character has a clear objective — something that they want, that will help them to grow as a character. There can be a group goal that they’re all working towards, but each individual needs their own personal story.
In The Avengers, Tony Stark wants to boss everybody around, and be the smartest person in the room; his objective is to learn how to work with other people. Bruce Banner wants to be a scientist and contribute to the world, while keeping control and not letting the Hulk out. (The Hulk wants to get out.) Steve Rogers is dealing with his culture shock after decades stuck under the ice, and he wants to find a clear, honest mission that will give him purpose and a reason to live. Nick Fury wants to bring the Avengers together, and turn them into a team that he can use to stop threats to the world. Natasha Romanoff wants to rescue her friend Clint from Loki’s control, and atone for past sins. Thor wants to beat up his brother Loki, and take him back to Asgard. Loki is a bad guy who wants to take over the world or whatever.
There are eight major characters in The Avengers, and they each get time to develop a personal objective, and make important choices that move the plot forward. There are eight major characters in Dark Shadows, too, and the only ones that really matter to the plot are Barnabas, Elizabeth and Angelique. They set Vicki up as a main character, but then they forget to give her an objective of her own. Is she looking for love? Family? Revenge? An explanation for the trauma that ruined her childhood? We have no idea, because then Barnabas shows up, and we forget about Vicki for most of the movie.
And that’s why, in 2012, The Avengers made $623 million dollars domestic, and Dark Shadows did not. I mean, that’s not the only reason, but it’s one of the big ones.
There are still several good sequences coming up, with some funny lines and performances — but this is the moment that it becomes clear that the movie does not actually have our best interests at heart, and the joyful spirit that carried us through the montage dissolves.
This is also the scene where Barnabas recites some lines from “The Joker” by the Steve Miller Band, which was released in 1973, same as the Carpenters’ “Top of the World”, and this is supposed to be 1972.
Again, this shouldn’t bother me, because who even cares, but they’re the ones that brought it up in the first place. They started it.
So they had a lot of ideas for Barnabas, is basically what happened. Tim, Johnny and Seth got together, back when they were coming up with the script, and they would jump out of their chairs and act things out and make each other laugh, and the only actor in the movie who had that kind of direct access to the script process was Johnny Depp, so guess who gets all the screen time.
Another funny idea that they had was for Barnabas to hang out with hippies, and the hippies would think that all the weird stuff he says is related to drugs. This is actually a funny Barnabas joke; it just happens to be the hundred-and-first Barnabas joke in a row. Somebody else needs a turn.
And that’s why the Julia story doesn’t really work. She’s promising to cure Barnabas of his vampirism, so that he can be a regular human, and walk in the daylight and be with Vicki. But Barnabas can already walk in the daylight, because they can’t stand having a scene without Barnabas in it, and there has been no evidence to suggest that Vicki considers Barnabas’ weird behavior and characteristics to be an obstacle for any future romance between them.
That’s mostly because they keep forgetting to write scenes that have Vicki in them, but when they finally get around to that, as they do in the next scene, there doesn’t seem to be any problem between Barnabas and Vicki. She likes him just fine. So why does this experiment matter?
And Julia gives Barnabas a fade-to-black comedy blow job, which is the first joke in the film that really doesn’t work for me. Partly, it’s just kind of gross, but I’m not opposed to sex jokes, if they’re funny and they make sense. But this doesn’t work for the scene.
Barnabas is already in a purported love triangle between Vicki and Angelique, which we haven’t seen in any real detail. And now Julia is going to suck Barnabas’ dick, right here in the lab, when he hasn’t even had a single romantic scene with Vicki yet?
Plus, Julia just descends, and that’s the end of the scene, and they never pick up on it again. That’s another reason why the movie fails, and it has Julia’s name on it, which is a shame.
Finally, they have a scene with Vicki and Barnabas together, and they make every bad choice that they could possibly make.
#1. Vicki walks up and casually takes his arm, strolling along the beach with no problems at all. The last three scenes were all about Barnabas not being sure he could court Vicki successfully, but here she is, courting him right back. She’s not interested in anybody else, so this lets all the air out of any prospective romantic dilemma.
#2. They finally have a scene together, and they spend the entire time talking about David, who also hasn’t been in the movie for forty-five minutes. What the hell? Is the next scene going to be a conversation between Barnabas and David about what’s going on with Roger?
#3. Why is it daylight outside? Yes, they’ve established that Barnabas can exist in the sunglight if he’s wrapped up and wearing his sunglasses, but if there’s one thing you’d want to do in the apparently only Vicki/Barnabas scene we’re going to get for a while, it’s to establish some romantic interest, and you can’t really do that when you’re dressed like Vicki’s elderly aunt. They could be doing a beautiful moonlight scene, where he talks about Josette, and how much he — um, his namesake ancestor — truly loved her. Vicki could have some kind of a feeling about it. They could even bring Josette’s ghost into it somehow, and have Vicki be wary of whatever plans the ghost might have. That would give Vicki a total of one story point, up from the current default of zero.
So I don’t understand how this scene even got made. I wanted nothing but this scene for the last forty minutes, and now it’s here and I’m still unhappy.
So if you were waiting for the moment when I start saying mean stuff about the movie, then I hope you’re satisfied, because I am fully there.
The props and sets are still providing the magic, though, especially in this Angelique boardroom scene, where she walks down the length of the room past the six gorgeous portraits of herself through the centuries, each one painted in a different style. You can’t really see the final one very well, but they’re printed in the Dark Shadows: The Visual Companion book, and they’re worth a look.
But I have to say, Angelique’s office is a letdown; this is the one set where I think they made the wrong choice. She’s got big paintings of pop-art blood spatter on the walls, which doesn’t really make sense, either literally or metaphorically. On the literal side, this is a place where Angelique does business; wouldn’t the blood fixation disturb people trying to have a meeting with her? As for the metaphor, blood is Barnabas’ thing, not Angelique’s, so I just don’t get it.
This should be a scene where Angelique is seated on a throne, adored by all; she should be on a pedestal, with everything in the room pointed in her direction. Instead, it’s just a crappy glass-and-wood office with a boring desk and bad art. I don’t like to be nitpicky on a movie that has poured so much attention into the sets, but they set a high bar for themselves, and this is the one that doesn’t measure up. Also, I don’t really like the scene.
I should like it, because this is the kaiju moment, when she openly discusses the fact that they’re insane mythological creatures who hunt humans for sport. “We’re both monsters, Barnabas,” she says, “just two big fish in an itty bitty pond.”
And then she offers herself to him, which is important for the plot, establishing that they have a strong sexual connection that fuels her insane love/hate obsession, and also that Barnabas is self-absorbed and makes terrible decisions.
But for this scene to really work, they needed to balance it with the moonlight Josette tragedy scene, which only exists in my imagination and was not screened nationwide. We already know that the crazy people are into each other, they established that when Angelique sat on the piano keys. But we don’t really know what Barnabas wants, or what he may be giving up by giving in. Plus, Julia just sucked his dick literally four minutes ago.
So it’s cute, as they fly around the set, scratching grooves in the woodwork and growing extra arms. I can appreciate the extravagance of this sequence, and they get to do a lot of fun camera angles and effects, but I don’t think it works dramatically for the characters.
This is a scene that they had to do, to establish the connection between Barnabas and Angelique, and Eva Green is acting all over the place, but I find it difficult to care enough to make any further observations. Maybe saying mean stuff about the movie isn’t as much fun as I’d hoped it would be.
The one thing that I really like in the back half of the movie is the two-part Maggie/Vicki childhood flashback, although part one is just Vicki randomly having a dream about her past, which is cheating. There should be a real reason for this to come up, related to that moonlight Josette scene that I invented, but in lieu of that, they just have Vicki sleeping and now here’s some of her sad backstory.
But it’s a surprising, kick-ass backstory, showing that she made friends as a child with the ghost that was haunting her, and freaked out her terrible stiff parents, who sent her off to Windcliff Sanitarium and didn’t respond to her desperate pleas for help.
And then Vicki wakes up and sees the ghost of Josette again, who says Help me and falls over backwards, which still doesn’t connect to anything.
Knowing that at the conclusion, Barnabas turns Vicki into a new Josette, you would think that Josette’s ghost would be trying to encourage them to get together, but this apparition feels more like a warning. So what is this about?
Then it’s another ensemble family meal scene, which is useful for reminding the audience that the rest of the ensemble exists, except for David who I guess doesn’t. It’s still mostly Barnabas talking, like every other scene in the movie, but Vicki gets a chance to smile a bit, and Roger gets a couple jokes and some more amusing facial expressions.
But what makes me sad in the second half of the movie is what doesn’t happen. In this scene, Carolyn is the terrifying force that she always should be, easily twisting Barnabas in knots through the power of her casual teenage ferocity. But Carolyn needs a real objective in this movie. All we know about her right now is that she’s bored, and she wants something interesting to happen. That definitely helps her align with the audience, who feel the same way, but oh, I wish Chloë Grace Moretz was in that room with Tim and Johnny and Seth, pitching Carolyn story ideas.
And then there’s the party sequence, which I have mixed feelings about, and you can probably derive them from what we’ve already discussed.
On the plus side, visually it’s fantastic — Collinwood all lit up in interesting colors, like we’ve never seen before. It’s such a simple thing, but nobody has ever thought of it before, and I love it. They’re also playing T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong”, which is a perfect party song and gets everybody in a good mood. The purpose of Dark Shadows as an enterprise is to show us things that we haven’t seen and never expected, and this qualifies.
And then there’s the big cameo! with Jonathan Frid, David Selby, Kathryn Leigh Scott and Lara Parker walking into the party, and Johnny Depp clearly enjoying the chance to say “Welcome to Collinwood” to them. It’s only five seconds long, but it’s beautiful and I’m glad they did it. The Dark Shadows: Return to Collinwood book tells the story of the quartet’s fun day at Pinewood, and how happy Tim and Johnny and Michelle and Eva were to meet them and talk about the show.
Jonathan Frid died just a month before the movie came out, and it’s a beautiful thing to see him cross the threshold of Collinwood one last time.
More positive things: I already told you how I feel about musical numbers, and that every movie and TV show should have them, with no exceptions. And turning the grand staircase in the foyer into a stage is just perfect, with a huge proscenium framing the band, and go-go dancers in cages with delicious purple and blue lighting. The mirrorball suspended from the crazy octopus chandelier is amazing, and seriously, every movie should do this; I refuse to accept any other point of view on the matter.
Soap opera party scenes are always great, because you can have the whole cast in one place, with everyone bumping into each other and having little conversations and overhearing each other’s secrets. It’s an opportunity to merge all the storylines together, and make things more complicated and fun.
But this movie doesn’t have any storylines, because the characters don’t have objectives. At this point, Barnabas has achieved his goal of restoring the family’s fortunes, and there doesn’t appear to be anything standing in the way of his relationship with Vicki. Elizabeth has achieved her goal of protecting the family, and making sure that nobody knows Barnabas’ secret. (Boy, wouldn’t it have been fun if there was somebody trying to figure out Barnabas’ secret, maybe a nosy reporter or something? Maybe in the next movie.)
Vicki doesn’t want anything in particular, ditto Roger, Carolyn, David and Willie, so I guess everything’s fine and this is now an Alice Cooper concert film, with cast members standing around awkwardly, looking mildly uncomfortable. You’re welcome.
It’s a shame that they don’t have a real story for this to play off of, because I think having Alice Cooper in this movie is brilliant. He’s a 1970s goth rocker who looks pretty much the same as he did forty years ago, which proves that everybody should do as much drugs as they want to. It makes you stronger. They hit the “Barnabas thinks that Alice Cooper is a woman” joke three times, and I’m sorry but I think it’s funny every time. “Go and watch the Cooper woman.” It makes me happy.
However — the Cooper woman is singing “No More Mr. Nice Guy”, which is the third song in this movie that was released in 1973. Yes, I know it’s not important, I’m the one telling you it’s not important, but it bothers me anyway, and I don’t want to keep that feeling bottled up inside me anymore.
There is actually a David/Roger sequence here, off to the side, which is something I’ve been hoping for, but it’s baffling, and I don’t understand what they’re trying to get at.
It begins with Barnabas finding David standing in the hall outside the drawing room doors, where the coat check girl should be. David tells Barnabas that Roger told him to stand here, while dad spends some quality time with the coat attendant.
For some reason, Barnabas acts like this is child abuse, which I do not get. He has to hypnotize the kid to get him to go back to the party, which seems excessive. The kid probably doesn’t like Alice Cooper anyway.
Personally, I think hypnotizing the child and forcing him to walk away with no will of his own is worse than asking a kid to stand in the hall for five minutes, but I don’t even know why Roger put David here anyway. Why not just lock the doors?
Roger does several mildly sleazy things in this scene, none of them particularly damaging. He steals some money out of a guest’s coat pocket, which isn’t great, and he tells David to stand guard. He also tells the coat check girl that he doesn’t know who the kid is, which I guess is supposed to signal that he’s not a great father.
But the big deal is apparently that Roger is making out with the coat check girl; Barnabas has to go climb up the wall like a lizard just to make sure that he understands exactly what kind of furtive obscenity is happening here, in the darkness.
But Roger is single, and he’s making out with a girl at a party. They play it like he’s cheating on somebody, but his wife died three years ago, and the girl is clearly eager to make out with him, so what exactly is the problem? It feels like this scene is left over from a previous draft where anyone gave a damn what Roger did.
Then there’s a nice little moment where Liz is talking with the old Dark Shadows cast, which I think is adorable. It made them happy, and it makes me happy, and for the duration of this shot, at least, the movie is still worthwhile.
And then we finally get the nighttime Vicki/Barnabas romance scene, too late for anyone to care.
Barnabas steps out onto the balcony, saying, “Whatever are you doing outside, my dear? You’ll catch your death of cold.”
“I’ve caught the only thing that matters, Barnabas,” she says. “Your eye.”
So it turns out that Vicki is attracted to Barnabas, a pretty important plot development that happened almost entirely off-camera. We don’t really know why she likes him, other than that he’s the main character and there’s some uncertain background ghost involvement.
There should be an obstacle here, related to figuring out that he’s a supernatural serial killer. They indicated in the “men would become unmanageable” scene that Vicki is intelligent, but Barnabas is putting all of the clues right out in the open and she still hasn’t picked up on a thing. Later, post-mirrorball smash, she finally notices that there’s something strange about Barnabas, and she recoils with a gasp, before once again disappearing and not being a factor in further plot development.
Anyway, here’s part two of the Maggie/Vicki traumatic childhood flashback, which we need to examine.
Vicki: It’s just… people I love haven’t always loved me back.
Vicki: My own family sent me away, swept me under the rug.
Vicki: Because it was easier than having a daughter who was different…
Vicki: Who was… cursed.
Vicki: Cursed, because I saw things other little girls didn’t.
Vicki: They were the loneliest, most painful years a child could know.
Doctor: Now, hold still, Maggie. This will only hurt for a minute.
Vicki: But as hard as they were, I never lost my will.
Vicki: The need to feel the sun on my face again.
Alice Cooper (singing): I — I want to get out of here!
Alice Cooper: I’ve gotta — I’ve gotta get out of here!
Vicki: So I set out in search of a new home…
Vicki: … a new life, far away from that pain.
Alice Cooper: I gotta get out of here, gotta get out of here, gotta get out of here!
Vicki: But even in my wildest dreams, I never thought I’d feel as happy as I do now.
That is a remarkable rethinking of Victoria’s secret past.
Instead of the antiseptic blandness of Vicki’s orphanage on the show, this Vicki’s backstory is haunted, and filled with cruelty and suffering. It’s a bold move, and it’s surprising and emotional, and it hit me like a sucker punch when I first saw it. It also doesn’t make any goddamn sense if you remember the beginning of the movie, but you can’t have everything.
I mean, there’s no way that you can take this essentially feral sanitarium graduate, locked up in the monkey house and electrobrained for more than ten years, and turn her into the polished, pleasant, “men would become unmanageable” governess that we saw at the beginning of the movie, just by putting her on a train and heading north. Also, where did she get the haircut, the outfit and the suitcase? So it doesn’t really work in any material sense.
And the fact that Maggie/Vicki has been essentially groomed by Josette’s ghost her entire life, just to deliver her to Barnabas when he’ll want her, is a challenging concept. Josette has been appearing to Vicki since she was a child, and the result was that Vicki had to endure intense emotional privation and painful electroshock therapy. Josette was directly responsible for that. The flashback makes it seem as if Josette is keeping Vicki company and giving her solid career advice, but it’s potentially much darker than that. And that’s your romantic throughline for the entire movie.
But I don’t care. That scene is angry and strange and utterly compelling. The movie does not deserve it, because of the lack of investment in her character and in this couple, and that means, unfortunately, that Dark Shadows is not a good movie. It is a failed movie. Still, I really like this scene, and that’s what watching Dark Shadows is about, isn’t it?
I mean, Dark Shadows’ Leviathan storyline is an utterly failed story, because Carolyn never figures out that her husband Jeb is a monster, which means that the huge emotional climax they’ve been building up to for months never happens, and then a random dude just throws Jeb off a cliff, instead of letting Carolyn be a strong character with an understanding of her own life. But I still like the Leviathan story, because it’s shouty and silly and impossible, and it’s got werewolf attacks and Julia gets to do everything. It is a fundamentally broken narrative that makes you wonder why they would possibly make such terrible choices, and I like it anyway. This movie is one of those.
Angelique crashes the party, and comes along just in time to see Barnabas and Vicki kiss. She’s furious, and a crazy-paving crack appears in the thin porcelain mask that she shows to the world.
After this moment, nothing really matters for the rest of the movie. Barnabas and Vicki kiss, Angelique sees them, and then she goes ballistic, tearing down the house and destroying everyone in it. Plot-wise, nothing that happens between this moment and the climactic kaiju battle really matters; you could just skip straight to the last five minutes, no questions asked.
There is more than half an hour left in this movie.
So then it’s just a parade of unnecessary disappointments, I’m afraid, where Barnabas starts destroying members of the cast.
Now that he’s hooked up with Vicki, Barnabas runs to Julia and says that he has an urgent need to be human again, but he discovers that she’s been giving herself transfusions of his vamp-blood. It turns out that Julia wants to be a vampire, because she doesn’t want to grow old, which is not a previously established objective for this character. I can see where they’re coming from, and if you want to get rid of Julia half an hour before the end of the movie, then at least it makes sense, so I don’t know, fine, just go ahead and kill her.
Although it does mean that he was lying to Elizabeth when he said that he wouldn’t harm anybody under this roof, which is kind of a big deal, if you still think that Elizabeth is supposed to be an important character, but I guess at this point maybe she’s not anymore. Nobody is.
It’s not clear why he finds this particular betrayal worthy of an instant death sentence. Who cares if Julia becomes a vampire? It doesn’t seem to bother anybody that Barnabas is a vampire. And what about Barnabas’ urgent need to become human? It seems like that fell off the objectives list in just under a minute.
And then, as prophesied by the spoiler-heavy soundtrack album, we have experienced Track 10 (Killing Doctor Hoffman) and moved on to Track 11 (Dumping the Body).
So I’ve got lots of questions, which include: Why are there no consequences to this act? Later on, Elizabeth says that she wishes Julia were here, but she doesn’t find out that Barnabas killed her friend, and yet Barnabas is still the hero. There are so many potential story points in the back half of the movie, and they just leave them where they are.
And if you’re going to get rid of one member of the ensemble for no reason, then you might as well do it twice in a row. Barnabas finds Roger prowling around the drawing room and looking for the secret entrance to the treasure room, which I guess is worse than kissing the coat check girl but still feels like an opportunity for a scolding, rather than anything permanent.
But Barnabas thinks it’s a big deal, so he lifts Roger up by the Adam’s apple and announces, “I am about to do something so repellent that it sickens me to my very core. I am going to give you a choice.”
Roger squirms, and asks what the choice is.
“Either you remain at Collinwood,” Barnabas declares, “and devote your every waking moment to becoming an exemplary father, the father that David so desperately wants and deserves… or you leave, with sufficient money to live your thieving, selfish life elsewhere.”
So Roger thinks about it for two seconds and then we see a taxi outside Collinwood, which is a funny little turn, but it doesn’t help the movie to make any more sense.
This hasn’t been a movie about Roger and David; as far as you can tell from the existing footage, they don’t really have anything to do with each other. There hasn’t been a single scene of David wishing that his father would love him or pay attention to him. David’s objective, if he has one, which he doesn’t, is that he wants people to believe that his mother talks to him. This moment is not related to that objective in any way, so it doesn’t work; it’s just taking Jonny Lee Miller and his funny facial expressions out of our view, and I will miss him.
If Roger actually had an objective himself, then maybe he could have been a threat to Barnabas somehow, or to the family, which would justify his banishment. This sequence actively works against Barnabas’ objective of keeping the family together. It just doesn’t make sense, and might actually be one of the worst things in the movie.
So the mirrorball smashes, and the movie breaks apart, into a million tiny glittering shards.
Julia is dead, and Elizabeth doesn’t know that Barnabas killed her; Roger is gone, and David doesn’t know that Barnabas banished him. Vicki doesn’t even know that he’s a vampire.
Barnabas isn’t confiding in anyone anymore, which means that there isn’t anybody that he really trusts. A character has to make a friend, make a joke and make a plot point happen, and Barnabas just spent the last four minutes aggressively unmaking every friend that he has. So that kind of puts the kibosh on the audience caring about anything that happens from here on.
Barnabas smolders, and Angelique chains him up inside another coffin, and leaves underwear on his face. Things begin to explode. Fires break out. The police arrive. Everything becomes witless and meandering, as David Edelstein warned us that it would, and Johnny Depp is still sending pages and pages of unhelpful script notes from the makeup chair.
Barnabas bites Angelique in full view of everybody. Angelique becomes the Joker, and stays there for the unsatisfactory eleven-minute fight scene that the plot implodes into.
Angelique vomits a lot. It turns out Carolyn is a werewolf, which would have been nice if that had actually been in the movie. Liz has a gun, and a final silhouette at the top of the stairs moment. The family is attacked by crushed clamshells and horsehair.
Angelique wobbles around the room like a marionette missing several pivotal strings. The chandelier comes down, and so does Angelique, eventually. People scream and fight and things catch on fire and nobody seems to care. Don’t know what happened to the police; they were outside a few minutes ago but now that the entire joint is burning down, they’re gone.
So this is what the mirrorball was trying to tell us. Why does no one listen to mirrorballs?
Vicki walks up to the top of Widow’s Hill, thoroughly hypnotized by a witch who’s already dead. She was supposed to be the star of this movie, lonely little Maggie Evans, and they don’t even give her the courtesy of making her tragic death inspired by the character’s own feelings.
She was programmed from the start, there in her childhood bedroom, Josette’s spirit silently escorting her back to this moment for a do-over that she never earned. When the movie began, Vicki had a moment where she was making choices of her own. Then the ghost took over again, and all it had to offer was a slow slide backwards to the rocks below.
This was the sixth and, as of press time, the last Victoria Winters that we will ever see, and she is the only one that I’ve ever liked. But nothing on Dark Shadows ever lasts for more than twenty-two minutes plus commercials, and the only thing we can do is enjoy those fleeting moments when Icarus jumps from Widow’s Hill and actually flies, for as long and as far as his wax wings will carry him.
Monday: You, Again.
— Danny Horn