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So I sent the family elsewhere, went downtown, purchased a single ticket, sat in exactly my preferred location (third row center, no peripheral vision off the screen) and watched Tim Burton’s new movie.
First, though, a story. My father, Sam Hall, was a writer on the original soap opera Dark Shadows, back in the swinging ‘60s. In 1990, Dan Curtis (who owned the show) got in touch with Sam to do the nighttime NBC version; Dan then read my first novel Nightmare Logic (which, shockingly, I just discovered a good review of here), liked it, and asked me if I wanted to work on the show as well.
So I did. And at the beginning Sam and I had a great many conversations about how we would like to see the new show evolve. The first decision we made was that we wanted the entire cast to skew young, and that we wanted 21 Jump Street star Johnny Depp to play Barnabas.
We fought hard to at least bring him in and have him tested. Dan Curtis nixed the idea. (He also nixed Iman, the fashion model and future wife of David Bowie, who screen tested wonderfully for Angelique the witch. Depp and Iman would have been a really interesting combination, but it was not to be.)
It must also be said that I have had, for many years, something of a Tim Burton problem. I long ago came to the opinion that with a strong script he is a good director, and with a weak script he’s a good art director. In essence, I haven’t really loved a Tim Burton movie since Ed Wood, in 1994, though there are many I have not seen.
So, with that backstory, and rather a personal stake in how they were going to treat Julia, I waited through the coming attractions open-minded but awash in a great many conflicting emotions.
I came out, two hours later, actually having enjoyed it.
What follows will contain spoilers, so consider this a spoiler alert. If you want to walk into the movie with no preconceptions whatsoever, stop reading now.
That said: I got a lump in my throat the first time you see the newly finished Collinwood, during the intro before the credits. And I got another one when the words Dark Shadows, in non-gothic font, not superimposed on waves crashing on a rocky shore, appeared on the screen.
And as we met the modern family I was delighted to feel intangible frissons, little whiffs of smoke that honestly did feel like the old Dark Shadows.
Having grown up with both parents involved with the show, and having actually spent a year of my adult life carpentering this material, I admire many of the structural decisions Burton and his writers have made. One of them was to conflate Julia’s knowledge of Barnabas’ vampirism with the Elizabeth Collins Stoddard role, here played by Michelle Pfeiffer. Structurally, given the truncation of time necessary in the movie, this made sense. And Pfeiffer actually reminded me more of Grayson Hall than Helena Bonham Carter did— the power, the dignity, the vulnerability, the cheekbones. Mom could’ve nailed that part. She never got to do the ass-kicking, Buffy the Vampire Slayer stuff that Pfeiffer gets a moment of, here, and she’d’ve enjoyed every minute of it.
Another decision was to conflate Maggie Evans and Victoria Winters. Again, a reasonable structural decision, arguable on the merits, but it didn’t bother me greatly. I liked the modernized Angelique, and I thought Eva Green was appropriately strong and evil. She’s beautiful, but she’s not as beautiful as Lara Parker, because nobody is; that can’t be helped. And I was expecting deeper use of Robert Cobert’s music; you didn’t get the main themes, but it was referenced in echoey flute touches throughout.
Further on music: I found the use of Alice Cooper forgivable because his Ballad of Dwight Fry actually addressed a plot point that would have been less explicable without it. And I was glad to see the musicians looked like the old Alice Cooper band–hair down to their asses, and a resurrected Glen Buxton.
Depp as Barnabas: once you get beyond the eye makeup and the Nosferatu fingers and his strange need to appear in at least one shot looking like late-period Michael Jackson in every movie he makes, I actually thought he took pains, and the script took pains, to reanimate the love-haunted vampire that made the original work. Not that he did Frid, though I actually thought of Frid in a few places. But his Barnabas is as much a gentleman as Frid’s was, and as ruthless as Frid could be. He filled those spaces nicely, I thought.
And at heart Depp was fundamentally protective of the love story, which is the real engine of Dark Shadows. And they didn’t lose that, thank God. Yes, it’s a pastiche, but losing that would have made it a sacrilege, and at least to me it is not.
That said: there are pacing problems—longueurs linger in scenes, a bit. The anachronistic jokes sometimes work and sometimes don’t. They play the Barnabas Doesn’t Understand Television beat later than they should; I expect it was accommodated in editing.
And then there’s Helena Bonham Carter, who suits up as my mother without necessarily inhabiting her. I was worried, going in, that they would trash Julia, and they kind of do, but not as badly as they do poor Louis Edmonds. Mom’s role in the original show was endlessly giving; she alone knew Barnabas’s secret, she wanted to help Barnabas because she loved him, and was unloved in return. But in this movie version Julia is no longer the single bearer of Barnabas’s secret, her centrality to the story thus immediately disappears, and her interest in him is ultimately proven to be selfish. This conspires to make her the expendable character that she was originally intended to be, and that mom kept her from being for years.
But even as they oversimplified Julia into a smoking, drinking floozy, there was some preserve of love and vulnerability at her core, perhaps merely because Burton didn’t want to utterly trash the mother of his children. Which thank God for that, even if it was a happy accident.
All of which is to say: I had half expected to spend the entire film wanting to climb under my seat in abject mortification, and I didn’t. I had fun. It was nice to be in some version of that world that felt weirdly authentic, even as it reveled in its inauthenticity. It’s not the old show, but I understand how it couldn’t be the old show. And it didn’t kill the franchise, which means Dark Shadows just might live to see another day.