Tim Burton has now successfully taken three of my cherished childhood œuvres d’art: Planet of the Apes, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and now Dark Shadows, and pissed his signature all over them. Dark Shadows is especially painful because I’ve recently re-discovered it as an adult and love it all the more.
I suppose the overlap in our mutual fondness for specific works demonstrates that we must share some of the same tastes, but only in nostalgia, not in re-creation. In fact, I would say for Tim Burton it’s less re-creation and more defecation. He’s got the money and the star power to run wild, which result in self-indulgent travesties that showcase The Tim Burton Experience™ but leave an underwear skid-mark on the originals he purports to remake.
Tim Burton needs to stop now.
For years I’ve been trying to cut him some slack, mostly out of fondness for Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and to a lesser degree Ed Wood, but after yesterday’s viewing of Burton’s big-screen adaptation of the small-screen wonder Dark Shadows, my patience has gone from a trickle to a vapor.
It’s not that I think the films and TV that shaped me as a child are too sacred to touch. In fact, just last year I went to see Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes – multiple times. The scene with marauding primates on the Golden Gate Bridge from Rise rivals the thundering hooves of horses with mounted gorillas in the grasslands from the original Apes movie. As a child, I was so stunned and scared by the image of apes riding horseback while hunting humans that I may have closed my eyes for at least a minute afterwards.
Yesterday I wanted to close my eyes for a different reason. I didn’t want to see a big-budget trashing of a baby-budget treasure. I’m not the only child who grew up on a secret diet of Dark Shadows, and though I highly suspected that Burton’s version would turn into an oversized action picture with unnecessary CGI and clumps of scenes thrown together to make some semblance of story, I wasn’t prepared for just how awful and insulting the film was.
Just before the movie started, I ran into a friend in the lobby of the second-run Riverview Theater. She was there with her young son, and didn’t really know Dark Shadows, so she asked if I thought it would be appropriate for a kid that age. I figured, yeah, it’ll be like all the other Tim Burton remake wrecks, maybe a little raunchy and a little bloody.
Bloody: Barnabas goes on mass murder sprees, killing an entire construction crew by ripping out their throats, and later murdering a band of hippies around a campfire. Is this Burton’s dark in Dark Shadows? Mass murder doesn’t mix with the (failed) wackiness and (leadened) levity all around it. Kids, isn’t Johnny Depp fun?
Raunchy: Helena Bonham Carter going down on Barnabas. Was this really part of the Dark Shadows fun and fright? Sucking Barnabas’s dick?
That cheap, vulgar, pointless scene really sums up the misshapen mess that is the film Dark Shadows. Wrongheaded. Trying to please a wide audience, including some older folks turning up for nostalgia, but mostly innocents coming to see a fun Tim Burton movie, including a good number of kids, ready to cheer on Johnny Depp acting even zanier than a pirate or a chocolate maker. I thought of my friend sitting with her kid watching a vampire get a blow-job and realized at that moment that this movie was a monumental misfire.
Take a look at the non-talent assembled in grafting this garbage together.
The screenplay and story are from Seth Grahame-Smith, author of the novel and screenplay Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which has already made stale the concept of mashing up monsters with history or highbrow literature. (He wrote the Jane Austen zombie book as well.) John August contributed to the feeble outline of a story. Prior convictions include Burton’s Roald Dahl profanation Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. Can screenwriters be disbarred?
And the performances?
Johnny Depp: I would like your retirement soon as well. You’ve played out the Edward Scissorhands eccentric outsider for twenty years. It’s done. End your collaborations with Tim Burton. Maybe ring up Jim Jarmusch and see if he’s got another Dead Man waiting for you. Find something else to do or hang it up. The schtick has worn through and now you’re a shadow puppet of yourself.
Helena Bonham Carter: Burton has to shoehorn his wife into everything, so here he drops an orange fright wig on her head and goads her into some sort of third-rate Brenda Vaccaro impression.
HBC also needs to find something else to do besides play bonkers in her husband’s samey-same blockbusters. She can act, but she’s dissipated into a shallow, repetitive nuttiness. She got to do it as Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter franchise, which worked better because she wasn’t trapped in her husband’s bubble, but she needs to burst out of it for good. Maybe she could go back to doing fancy historical Merchant/Ivory-type films. Or maybe she and Burton could find a nice spot on the Riviera where they can privately indulge in their excesses without splattering them onto film screens.
Eva Green: I quite like the actress, but here she’s stuck in a role that’s too comically vampish (not vampire, vamp) for her. She feels like the ersatz Lisa Marie, Burton’s old girlfriend, who he chucked into his movies when they were together, mostly to show off her tits. Eva Green has an excellent nasty smile, but she’s not terribly funny, and funny is about all she can hope for with the character.
NB: If I were to re-cast, I would not hesitate in selecting Jennifer Coolidge as the bitter witch and longtime enemy of the Collins clan. She could have brought some of the unbridled ridiculousness into focus and wrung some genuine laughs out of me, though I don’t think I would appreciate spending the last half hour or so watching her body being slowly dented and dissected any more than when Eva Green’s was. What is Tim Burton trying to put across with that?
If Burton needs a comic performer who can really work her rack, he needs to go for the gold with Jennifer Coolidge:
Jackie Earl Haley: Yes, one of the great, most surprising comebacks of the new millenium, one that I cheered all the way – up till now. His Willie Loomis character mumbles lines that I am not even sure are supposed to be funny, and exists mainly to make us laugh at a yucky old drunk. He could have made this work, had he had a real script to work with and some actual comedy to deliver. Here he’s a borderline cypher.
Chloe Moretz: I’m leaving off the pretentious umlaut/tréma on her first name as punishment for her performance in this film, which is difficult for me as I love diacritics, but here she is really, really bad – so no ë. As child actors go, I consider her pretty good as long as she’s not going for the dreaded precociousness that so many scripts demand, as she did in 500 Days of Summer. If she has to be precocious, I like her better as a conniving capitalist carnivore, as on 30 Rock as Jack Donaghy’s nemesis. In Dark Shadows, instead of precocious, she’s all attitude! And nothing else.
I wanted her to disappear as soon as she slammed her bedroom door on the camera – or on us. Her performance is the worst of the bunch, though I don’t fault her so much as the director. Here’s hoping that an acting coach squeezes some nuance out of her for the upcoming remake of Carrie.
Michelle Pfeiffer: No real complaints, but she doesn’t come off as 1972 at all. References to macramé are are not enough to put Elizabeth Stoddard Collins into the early seventies, though she does seem to be going for Joan Bennett’s stiff demeanor. However, I would like to see this as a sign that Pfeiffer is coming back to us.
Jonny Lee Miller: The character of Roger seems to have jumped from the small to big screen only to give Barnabas a shot at being a sympathetic father figure, in contrast to Roger’s thieving scoundrel, yet even as a device existing solely to round out another character, it’s a fail: a thieving scoundrel is surely better than a mass murderer for a father. Jonny Lee Miller had almost nothing to do here. Why bother?
Bella Heathcote: No complaints here. I thought she set a nice tone for the film as she made her way to the estate, though I didn’t enjoy the script conflating Maggie Evans and Victoria Winters as a single character. It’s just insider name-dropping that irritates me because it’s inaccurate.
Alice Cooper: Hey, he’s listed in the opening credits when Hammer Horror king Christopher Lee is left out, so I guess his cameo deserves a mention. I thought he was a nice throwback to ’72, and with stage make-up and the right camera angles, the forty years’ difference didn’t bother me so much, and though he did seem a bit Baby Jane-ish, I found him a welcome respite from the film around him. I do wish his performance had been cut to one number. Even credited, it’s still a cameo.
Others have not been so forgiving to Alice Cooper. I guess I see their point. It’s too bad Alice Cooper isn’t Dorian Gray, because he can be an engaging actor playing himself. Cast in point: Roadie from 1980. God bless Roadie. Maybe they should let Alice Cooper play Alice Cooper set in 2012. Let’s get on that.
[Alice Cooper is welcome to come back with Meat Loaf and Debbie Harry for a belated senior citizen sequel to Roadie. I only wish that Art Carney and Don Cornelius could be more than spiritually present for the reunion.]
So what did I like about Dark Shadows?
- The opening credits, which roll as Victoria Winters’ train makes its way to Collinsport. We get a sweeping overhead view and follow the train as it wends its way through the trees while the Moody Blues’ Nights in White Satin blasts. This gave me a surprising sensation of Wuthering Heights! I became hopeful for the film, as the song with its plaintive vocals, somber strings, and especially the wailing chorus seemed to fall right into place as the proper introduction to a big-budget gothic show that might dare to take itself semi-seriously. I associate the tune with the sixties, not the seventies, but the bigness fits. Or it should have.
- The setting: 1972. I was worried Burton would go the route of the Brady Bunch films and get mired in period jokes. I did find it funny when Depp watched Karen Carpenter on the television and demanded, “Tiny songstress, reveal yourself!” or something like that. But that was in the trailer, and I could have been fully satisfied with that alone. I guess I didn’t exactly like 1972 for the purposes of the film, but I’m relieved they didn’t dwell on it. My biggest question would be: Why be faithful to the era and impious toward almost every other element of the original?
So… I hated Dark Shadows. I want Tim Burton to retire completely or to at least limit himself to scripts that he can’t really deviate from. Stephen Sondheim saved his Sweeney Todd by bracketing a structure that Burton couldn’t break and providing songs that framed the characters and plot. Burton has big trouble in with character and plot. Say thank-you to Mr. Sondheim.
I’m so tired of Tim Burton plucking sweet memories from my youth and puking all over them. I’ve been exempt from having to see shit like Alice in Wonderland, which I know features all the key Burton wackiness and outsized performances from Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, but I feel compelled to watch the new versions of my old classics, if only to understand how other generations will misinterpret the stories. (Even Roald Dahl hated the first film version of his Chocolate Factory, but I’d put that over Burton’s by leagues, and I’m guessing that Dahl’s spirit is with me.)
Dark Shadows is a noisy collection of Burton tropes with an uncertain, uneven tone that caters to everyone and to no one, with hammy performances from actors who are beginning to devolve more with each successive Burton partnership, and a story that pretends to follow an old and treasured classic, but is in reality a jumbled mess of references to the original without a trace of its appeal.
And I’m thankful that I missed the original Barnabas Collins, Jonathan Frid, cameo in the film. Frid passed away just before the release, and I like to think the actor enjoyed the resurgence of Dark Shadows fandom and the opportunity to participate in the film, without having to actually see the Burton/Depp complete desecration of his work.
And thank goodness the creator of the original has already crossed over: This was most definitely NOT a Dan Curtis production.