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WHEN BURTON MET BARNABAS

I went to an opening day showing of director Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows movie, starring Johnny Depp as its vampire protagonist Barnabas Collins, with trepidation. The film is based on the legendary daytime serial that was created by the late producer Dan Curtis, and ran on ABC from 1966 into 1971, attracting an immense audience, including myself. It was a modern, ongoing version of Gothic melodrama, incorporating nearly every element of classic horror and Gothic romance, and gripped the imaginations of young Baby Boomers like myself. (It has also been a source for comics adaptations, from Ken Bald’s 1970s newspaper strip to Dynamite Entertainment’s recent comic book series, which is why it fits in “Comics in Context.”) But the trailers and commercials for the movie appalled many of the show’s admirers, seemingly indicating that Burton and his collaborators had turned Dark Shadows into a heavy-handed farce, set to a 1970s rock score. In interviews Burton, Depp, and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith expressed bafflement at the negative reaction, saying they did treat the saga of Barnabas Collins seriously, but Burton and Grahame-Smith also ominously spoke about emphasizing the “weirdness” of the show. Then Warners put Danny Elfman’s score for the film online, and it was what I had hoped for: grand and powerful music for a Gothic drama on an operatic scale, with nice momentary homages to Robert Cobert’s score for the original TV series.

So I hoped that Burton and the others, as well as some reviewers who had seen preview screenings were right, and that the movie would turn out to be basically serious, but with Burton’s characteristically goofy touches here and there. But still, why would Warner Bros. marketing people go out of their way in the publicity to make the movie seem like a comedy? Did they somehow think that in this current wave of vampire fiction, from Anne Rice’s novels to Joss Whedon’s Buffy and Angel to True Blood and Twilight that there was no audience for a serious and romantic vampire movie? Did they think there would be more potential audience if they claimed Dark Shadows was the second coming of Burton’s horror comedy Beetlejuice? Or were they acting out of desperation because Burton’s Dark Shadows really wasn’t good?

Watching the movie, I felt considerably relieved. Yes, the goofy gags in the trailer and commercials are there, and rock music alternates with Elfman’s evocative score. But much of the movie is done more or less seriously, and much of it works quite well. But Burton and company’s lapses into comedy continually undercut the drama, and in various important ways they fail to bring out or even seem to understand the power of their source material. In short, I was relieved because the movie wasn’t as bad as I had feared. It was entertaining and sometimes even perceptive, but it is deeply flawed.

To understand what Tim Burton gets right about Dark Shadows and what he gets wrong, you should know something about the nearly half century history of this property. I’ve written a number of previous “Comics in Context” columns about Dark Shadows in the past, most recently “Remembering Barnabas Collins,” on the occasion of the recent passing of Jonathan Frid, the actor who originated the role. You may wish to read that column as background.

In the course of this current column, I will refer to the various past incarnations of Dark Shadows. There was the original 1966-1971 television series, created by Curtis and starring Mr. Frid as Barnabas, in which the character was introduced as a villain but evolved into a tragic antihero and finally into a genuine hero. Curtis directed the 1970 film House of Dark Shadows, starring Frid and other members of the television cast, which was an alternate version of the show’s continuity, in which Curtis carried out his original intent for Barnabas, presenting him as a villain. In 1991 a new Dark Shadows television series, produced by Curtis, starring Ben Cross as Barnabas, ran on NBC. This was a reboot of the original continuity, that covered Barnabas’s arrival in the present day and included the flashback to his 18th century origin. NBC canceled the show after its initial season, despite its popularity with the young demographic; by the time NBC realized its mistake and tried to revive the series, the cast had gone their separate ways and it was too late. In 2004 Curtis produced a pilot for yet another revival for the WB television network, but it did not work and was not picked up.

As usual I will discuss the entire plot for the 2012 Dark Shadows movie, so consider yourselves given spoiler warnings.

CAMP AND THE COLLINS FAMILY

An awful lot of the recent newspaper and magazine articles about Dark Shadows and even many of the reviews of the new movie predictably recycle the old cliches about how the original Dark Shadows television series was camp: actors blew their lines, props malfunctioned, scenery fell down. Most of these pieces are written by lazy journalists who seem to have done more research on old articles about the show than bothering to watch any of it themselves. The worst case is critic Terrence Rafferty’s feature article about the original Dark Shadows in The New York Times in which he gives no sign of having watched any of the old episodes himself. Instead he interviews Tim Burton about the original series although Burton has a particularly eccentric take on the show, even missing aspects that lie at the heart of the series, as we shall see. David Edelstein in New York Magazine recalls watching the original series as a child but he too spends more time discussing the bloopers than explaining why he found the show so appealing back then. At least he perceives the Burton movie as a “camp travesty” of the original. Time’s Richard Corliss, to his credit, watched original episodes more recently and declares them show to be “creakier than it is creepy”. I suspect he watched some of the earlier episodes when the show moved as slow as molasses, which is to say, as slowly as a typical soap opera of that time. By the time Dark Shadows reached its peak, it was moving at a rapid clip that had me and my friends on the proverbial edges of our seats; if you missed a few episodes and you were somewhat lost. Projecting their own attitudes onto the audience, some critics have persuaded themselves that the millions who watched the original Dark Shadows in the 1960s liked it precisely because it was camp. Sigh. No, we didn’t.

If the original Dark Shadows was camp, then it was unintentional camp, unlike the Batman TV show which ran in this same period. Due to its low budget, the show was done “live on tape,”and it was extremely rare for retakes to be done. Therefore, any mistakes were preserved for posterity on the videotapes. Dark Shadows is the only 1960s daytime serial that has survived through the decades through reruns and home video. I wonder how many other soap operas of the time had similar bloopers.

You can easily find Dark Shadows blooper reels on YouTube, they are indeed funny, and they might give you the impression that the show was a continual series of onscreen calamities. But if you watch the actual episodes just looking for amusing bloopers, then you’re wasting your time. The actors are professionals, not bungling amateurs. If you spend enough time watching enough episodes, sooner or later you will indeed come across a mistake, but most of them, which simply involve an actor forgetting a line, aren’t funny, but simply reminders that you’re watching something close to live drama. (For example, in the recent live episode of 30 Rock, the show’s creator Tina Fey mixed up two characters’ names in one of her lines.) So if you’re just watching the show looking for blunders, you’re wasting your time. Don’t you have better things to do?

Another reason for Dark Shadows‘ “camp” reputation is that it is acted and directed in a theatrical style. The cast mostly consisted of New York theater actors, and the show, in its best years, was written in a theatrical style. This is not to say that the actors are overacting and chewing the scenery, but that they are performing in a larger than life manner. Some cast members, included David Selby, have pointed out that this style gives the show its dramatic intensity. Certainly it is appropriate for a modern recreation of melodrama. To appreciate the show, you have to allow yourself to accept the style.

I suspect that many people who dismiss the show as camp simply can’t bring themselves to accept fantasy material like vampires and ghosts as the stuff of serious drama. Comics aficionados who read this column should be aware that this is the same mindset that dismisses superheroes and some other comics genres.

Finally, it should be pointed out that the writers and actors put some intentional comedy into the show. Certain characters provide comic relief, notably John Karlen’s portrayal of Barnabas’s high-strung servant Willie Loomis, and even more so Karlen’s literally hysterical half-mad Carl Collins in the 1897 story arc, as well as Nancy Barrett’s bawdy Cockney songstress Pansy Faye, also in the 1897 sequence. But Willie, Carl and Pansy all had serious sides, as well. More often the humor in Dark Shadows comes through the wry and sardonic comments of various characters, on the action, notably Quentin Collins, Professor Stokes, and the villains Nicholas Blair and Count Petofi; one can sense the writers’ pleasure in scripting dialogue for these characters. The discerning Dark Shadows enthusiast can even detect occasional in jokes, delivered straightfaced, on the show: for example, at one point Donna McKechnie, who was already becoming famous as a Broadway dancer, claimed in her DS role of Amanda Harris that she could not dance. But almost never does Dark Shadows go over the top with such humor; instead it’s done stylishly and usually subtly.

Over the years I have attended a great many Dark Shadows Festivals and there watched episodes of the original series, or excerpts from them, alongside large audiences. So I know how Dark Shadows aficionados react to the show. Yes, when there is a blooper onscreen, or an actor goes over the top in a line reading, or a line seems over the top, the audience laughs affectionately. But otherwise the audience is riveted to the story, dedicated to the characters, and applauds loudly and sincerely at the end of powerful scenes. In other words, they take the show very seriously indeed; the unintentionally amusing moments are just a bonus.

BARNABAS COLLINS

After Barnabas is freed from his coffin, he sees the golden arches of a nearby McDonalds, and wonders aloud if this giant “M” stands for Mephistopheles, the name of the devil. This is the first of the movie’s many, many gags about Barnabas’s bewilderment by 1970s culture, and it’s not funny, nor are any of the others. This isn’t just my opinion; the audience I was with laughed at only one of these gags (not the McDonalds one), and even then their laughter sounded muffled.

Just why did Burton and Depp decide to set their Dark Shadows movie in 1972? That’s the year after the original series ended. But Burton isn’t continuing the continuity from the original series, like Lara Parker does in her novels, which are set in the early 1970s; he’s rebooting the series instead. The easy answer is that Burton wanted to make fun of popular culture from this decade of his youth. But Dark Shadows is really part of 1960s popular culture, as I will show elsewhere in my commentary on this movie. Moreover, making fun of the 1970s is hardly a new phenomenon (See, for example, Mike Myers’ Austin Powers in Goldmember) and is like shooting fish in a barrel. Besides, I expect that Warners is aiming this movie at a young demographic who weren’t even alive yet in the 1970s. How much sense does it make to have Johnny Depp’s Barnabas reading and commenting on the notoriously kitschy 1970s novel Love Story when much of the intended audience has never heard of this book?

Dan Curtis’s various film and TV versions of Dark Shadows never explored any culture shock that Barnabas might have experienced in coming to the 20th century. The only clear example that Barnabas felt out of place in this new century was the fact that he did not have electricity installed in his home, the Old House, preferring to use candlelight. The characters who did not know he was the 18th century Barnabas presumably regarded this as his eccentricity, and certainly it added to the atmosphere of scenes set in the Old House. Barnabas also typically wore a kind of cape, though it was a modern one, and kept his 18th century hairstyle, but these were subtle signs that he was attempting to find modern equivalents to his 18th century wardrobe.

Of course it was essential to Curtis’s concept of Barnabas as an 18th century vampire posing as his own descendant that Barnabas seem outwardly to be a modern man. Viewers were left to presume that between the time that Willie released him from his coffin and Barnabas’s first visit to Collinwood that Barnabas had quickly learned enough about the 20th century to pass for a man of that time. That presumably meant that Willie Loomis, hardly the brightest or most cultured of men, must have been Barnabas’s principal source of information!

But a major reason that the TV series did not delve into Barnabas’s culture shock was that Curtis and his collaborators were very careful to minimize their references to modernity on the show. Original cast member Nancy Barrett has joked that the wealthy Collinses apparently did not own a television set. Indeed, there were telephones at Collinwood, and a tape recorder played a key role in one story arc, but one never saw a television set. In the second episode Carolyn is seen dancing to rock music, but that is the first and last use of rock music on the show. There are no references to current events. In 1969 and 1970 the younger actresses on the show and in House wear miniskirts in the present day sequences, but the characters’ wardrobes and hairstyles are nonetheless rather conservative for the late 1960s and early 1970s. When there is a major exception, like actor Christopher Pennock’s very 1970s outfit as astrologer Sebastian Shaw, it seems like a shock in the setting of this show. I also like a clever touch at the start of the 2004 Dark Shadows pilot: on arriving in Collinsport, Victoria Winters discovers that her mobile phone no longer works. (That’s actually true in some isolated small towns, such as Woodstock, New York.)

It seems that Dan Curtis and his collaborators wanted to create a timeless sort of atmosphere on Dark Shadows, that was suitable to their goal of creating a modern version of a traditional Gothic romance. Though set in the late 1960s, Dark Shadows from its beginning, with young Victoria Winters journeying to become governess at a great old mansion on the rocky coast of Maine, evoked the plots of novels of past decades, like Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca or even Jane Eyre. As the show delved increasingly into the supernatural, it would do its own versions of story elements from 18th and 19th century romances and horror tales, like Dracula and Frankenstein. Collinwood and Collinsport seemed to stand apart from modernity and the outside world, so they seemed more credible settings for traditional romance and horror storylines. Perhaps this is why the show’s audiences were willing to accept the long story arcs on the show that were literally set in the 18th and 19th centuries. Surely this was part of Dark Shadows‘ appeal. Imagine: millions of young people in the late 1960s were watching a show that spent months doing period drama set in past centuries! This timeless air of Dark Shadows presumably is another reason why the show has continued to flourish in reruns and home video for nearly half a century; it doesn’t date as badly as many other shows from its period.

By emphasizing 1970s popular culture, Burton’s Dark Shadows subverts Curtis’s strategy for his creation. It’s as if Burton and Depp and Grahame-Smith were fans wondering how Barnabas would react to television or to lava lamps or to rock music. In other words, this aspect of their Dark Shadows movie comes off as fan fiction, attending to irrelevant trivia while missing the point of the series they are adapting.

Moreover, they are distorting Barnabas’s own character. They have him ranting about the devil, when confronted by some aspect of modern culture he dislikes and does not understand. Thus Barnabas sounds more like one of the show’s versions of Reverend Trask, the witch-hunting religious fanatic who was one of the series’ most memorable villains. Barnabas was always Trask’s adversary. In the original series’ 18th century arc, Barnabas, before his transformation, was depicted as a man of reason who regarded Trask’s ravings about witches as dangerous superstition; Barnabas strove to save the time-traveling Victoria Winters from being tried and executed by Trask for witchcraft. The 1991 series emphasized that Trask was an anachronism in the 18th century, still hunting alleged witches a century after the Salem witch trials, and that Barnabas was a rational man of the 18th century Enlightenment. Indeed, Joshua Collins, Barnabas’s father, was a supporter of the American revolution, and Barnabas would have been a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. It’s more likely that Barnabas, as depicted on the TV series, would be amazed and fascinated by modernity than that he would react to its manifestations as if it were the devil’s work.

But I think that Burton may have had another reason for setting this film in 1972, and this one works. All the past film and TV versions of Dark Shadows have started out set in whatever year is then the present one. Thus Barnabas was imprisoned in his coffin in the late 18th century, but he is released in the present. I think that we all tend to assume that the present day represents the height of human achievement to date, and that we in the present are more enlightened than people were in the past.

But as the present turns into the past, its flaws become evident in retrospect. For example, to many people who lived in the early and mid-1960s, that was a period in which American culture was making great strides forward: the Kennedy Administration, the space race, the civil rights movement, and so forth. Yet now in the 21st century the Mad Men television series portrays that same period as deeply flawed by our contemporary standards, with faults ranging from sexism to smoking. (The Mad Men episode that debuted on Sunday May 13, 2012 was set in 1966, was titled “Dark Shadows” and even made reference to the show, although one character dismissed it as “crap.” Well, it wasn’t good until Barnabas showed up in 1967.)

In Burton’s Dark Shadows, Barnabas still comes from the 18th century, but is released not into our present but into a less distant past, the 1970s, and now aspects of the popular culture of that decade look dated and strange and even absurd to us from our vantage point of the 2010s. Burton’s Barnabas seems out of place in the 1970s, but we in 2012 would not fit in that easily either, nor might we want to. Barnabas’s teenage cousin Carolyn sneers that he is “weird,” but so are the 1970s as Burton pictures them. Moreover, despite Barnabas’s many faux pas in the movie, his gentlemanly manners from another century still seem admirable in this new setting. Barnabas’s courtly manners endure well over the passage of time, whereas so much of the 1970s culture that the movie pictures has fallen from fashion and nearly disappeared. If Barnabas’s personal style makes him a “weird” outsider in 1970s Collinsport, the film seems to be saying that’s a good thing, better than adopting the trappings of 1970s culture, which is what the movie finds to be truly weird.

This is an aspect of Barnabas that Burton, Depp, and Grahame-Smith have perceptively recognized and emphasize: Barnabas as the model of a true gentleman, who has carried his sense of proper behavior and style, and indeed his own moral code, including devotion to family, into a new and more vulgar time period.

It might be helpful to regard Burton and Depp’s Barnabas as an older, less innocent version of their earlier character, Edward Scissorhands, another “weird” outcast, an innocent good person who tries to fit into a conventional society that is itself rather odd—that film’s caricature of 1950s-1960s style suburbia—but is handicapped by his own potential to destroy and kill, represented by the knives he possesses instead of hands.

And what of Barnabas’s own murderous side? As in the original series, it is the witch Angelique who, jealous that her former lover Barnabas had rejected her in favor of Josette, transformed him into a vampire. In Burton’s film Barnabas blames Angelique for the killing he has done.

Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis introduced Barnabas into the series as a villain, but within a year Barnabas had wreaked a revolution in vampire fiction. He became a “reluctant vampire,” a good man who was forced to attack victims die to the curse placed upon him. Whereas Dracula and vampires up until then seemed willingly to kill their victims, Barnabas was depicted as a victim himself of the curse. His vampiric bloodlust was depicted by both the writers and by actor Jonathan Frid as an addiction, as if to alcohol or drugs. The rising use of drugs was a phenomenon of the 1960s; this mat be another way in which Dark Shadows tapped into the zeitgeist of that decade.

Regular viewers of the original TV show are familiar with one of its recurring tropes, a scene that was repeated with variations numerous times in the course of the series. A young woman on the Collinsport docks, sometimes implied to be a prostitute, encounters Barnabas. They strike up a conversation. Barnabas turns hesitant, and tries repeatedly, even desperately, to break off the conversation and get away, but the woman persists in flirting with him. Then it is as if a switch is flipped in Barnabas’s mind; he has passed the point of no return, and the addiction takes control. His face and manner turn sinister and predatory, and then he bares his fangs and attacks.

Jonathan Frid was excellent at performing Barnabas’s struggle with his addiction as well as his sense of guilt and self-hatred after being compelled to give in to it.

But what about Depp? When the workmen free him from his coffin early in the film, Depp’s Barnabas informs them in a matter-of-fact tone of voice that he is sorry, but he is very thirsty, and then proceeds to slaughter them all. In previous versions it was Willie Loomis alone who found and released Barnabas, who then bit him, putting Willie under his control, but did not kill him. It makes a certain amount of sense that in Burton’s film Barnabas kills so many people on first being freed; after nearly two centuries of confinement, a vampire must need a lot of blood and quickly. Why the workmen do not rise again as vampires is not explained.

But Depp’s Barnabas shows no sign of struggling with his conscience before or after he attacks and kills those men. Indeed, his matter-of-fact manner when he tells then he is about to kill them shows no sign of emotion whatsoever.

Similarly, Barnabas later encounters a group of hippies. (Not only does this movie try to find humor in 1970s pop culture cliches, but drags in one from the 1960s as well.) And he ends his conversation with them by informing them that he is about to kill them all, as he proceeds to do. Again, Burton and Depp do not have Barnabas display any emotion at all when he delivers this line, not predatory bloodlust nor anguish over being unable to control his predatory urges nor shame over them. Burton and Depp seem to be playing Barnabas’s deadpan declaration of mass murder to get a laugh out of the audience. But why should we laugh at the deaths of these hippies. If you are to take this story seriously, Barnabas is murdering people, not abstract objects of 1960s pop culture.

As in previous versions of Dark Shadows, Dr. Julia Hoffman attempts to cure Barnabas, and succeeds to the extent that he is able to walk outside in daylight. (The movie does not make it clear why Barnabas is able to exist in sunlight at some points in the movie and not in others, and New York Times critic Manohla Dargis pointed to the seeming inconsistency without realizing the reason for it in the plot.) In the Burton film Barnabas discovers that Julia’s real motive is to use his blood to make herself immortal; angered at this betrayal, he murders her. Later, Barnabas claims that by putting the curse on him, Angelique is responsible for this as well as his other killings. But is she? When Barnabas killed Julia I got no sense that he was being driven to do it by forces beyond his control. He never shows regret over murdering her, and keeps her death a secret. Watching the movie, I wondered if at this point Burton was trying to get the audience to turn against Barnabas. Was this a turning point at which we are to regard Barnabas as a villain, as in Curtis’s House of Dark Shadows, when the murder of Julia marks Barnabas’s reversion to evil? But no, Burton and Depp continue to present Barnabas as the movie’s hero, as if the murder of Julia had no moral consequences.

At one point earlier in the movie, Depp’s Barnabas tells Michelle Pfeiffer’s Elizabeth about his curse and how it forces him to kill, and Depp does let anguish show in his voice and manner. But Burton and Depp subvert the dramatic impact by having Barnabas hit his head repeatedly against the keyboard of an electric piano, producing discordant notes until Elizabeth turns it off. Thus Burton and Depp turn Barnabas’s agony over his curse, something at the core of the character in previous versions of Dark Shadows, into an unfunny joke. One must draw the conclusion that they simply don’t care about the tragic side of Barnabas, and hence about the essence of this character they claim to love.

And just why is Depp’s Barnabas telling Elizabeth that he is a vampire, anyway? In previous versions of Dark Shadows Barnabas hid the fact that he was a vampire from the present day members of the Collins family, claiming instead to be a “cousin from England,” the lookalike descendant of the 18th century Barnabas. The initial reason why is clear: he didn’t want to be hunted down and destroyed as a menace. When Barnabas evolved into the guilt-ridden vampiric antihero of the series, another reason was implicit: Barnabas’s deep shame over his curse. This is another aspect of Barnabas’s character that one would have assumed was essential. But Burton and Depp’s Barnabas freely admits what he is to Elizabeth, and it is she who has to get him to agree not to tell anyone else. But Barnabas seemingly cannot help himself, and keeps talking about his secret to other members of the family (who don’t realize he’s talking about being a vampire) and to those hippies (who end up dead). Despite Barnabas’s supernatural hypnotic powers, Dr. Hoffman is able to hypnotize him easily; this is hard to believe, but Burton and Depp seem unable to resist such a cheap joke. But she didn’t have to hypnotize this Barnabas to find out that he is a vampire; all she had to do was just listen to his dinner table conversation! So where is this Barnabas’s sense of guilt and shame?

Or his wish to disguise his true nature? In the previous versions Barnabas sought to pass as a modern day human, and apart from his unusual hair style, he looked the part. Depp’s Barnabas has a more extreme version of Barnabas’s bangs, chalk-white skin, and long, claw-like fingernails, and appears in public in 18th century costume! (I have seen concept drawings that Burton did of Barnabas Collins; he pictured Barnabas as something of a cartoon-like figure.) If the good people of Collinsport believed in vampires, as they seemingly come to do in the course of the film, then Barnabas is the obvious suspect. And if Burton and Depp intend to do a sequel (as the final revelation about Dr. Hoffman seems to set up), isn’t it a problem that the townspeople all seem to know in the film’s last act that Barnabas is a vampire? And I do hope that since Burton sets Collinwood, the mansion where the family lives, that the fire department arrives after the closing credits to put out the blaze. Even Burton admitted in an interview that Collinwood is essential to Dark Shadows.

But Burton’s Dark Shadows does get some things about Barnabas right. For one thing, Angelique tells him that they are both “monsters.” Josette, the woman that Barnabas loves, represents the nobility and goodness to which Barnabas aspires. But Barnabas’s vampirism represents and brings out his potential for violence and ruthlessness. Arguably, he and Angelique are alike in that both are capable both of passionate and obsessive love and of terrible violence and vengefulness.

For another, Depp’s Barnabas tells Elizabeth that he values family and will be a protector of the Collins family of modern times. That was indeed one of Barnabas’s principal motivations in the original television series after he became its hero: he was the guardian and defender of his family and friends, who would risk his existence for them. This is something that even Dan Curtis omitted in House of Dark Shadows, in which Barnabas even slew two members of his own family. But to the credit of Burton, Depp, and Grahame-Smith, they get this aspect of Barnabas Collins’ personality right. And in a future “Comics in Context” about Burton’s Dark Shadows movie I will explore how the film handles the other members of the Collins family and other principal characters.

“Comics in Context” #244
Copyright 2012 Peter Sanderson

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