Make it a Double: DUMBO & DARK SHADOWS

Shedding some light on Tim Burton’s gothic soap opera

Dumbo flew into theaters this weekend, and will hopefully quickly fly right back out again. The idea of this reimagining by director Tim Burton sounds more novel and logical than the lifeless final product audiences will have been treated to this weekend which is chock full of paper thin characters and a plot which offers nothing but retreads of life lessons handled much better in the 1941 original.

While Dumbo is a definite misfire for Burton, the director does make the wise choice of casting Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito in two of the film’s key roles. Fans of Burton will happily eat up the pair’s scenes together in this entirely welcome reunion of two out of three principal cast members from Batman Returns; still one of Burton’s most fondly remembered titles. It’s a shame Burton couldn’t find a part for the third (and without question, most memorable) cast member from the movie, Michelle Pfeiffer. However, judging by the results, that may not have been the worst thing. In honor of this Batman Returns reunion however, I thought I’d revisit and pay tribute to the instance where Burton and Pfeiffer DID re-team; in 2012’s severely maligned and misunderstood Dark Shadows.

Based on the cult supernatural daytime soap opera of the late 60s/early 70s which featured, ghosts, witches and vampires, Dark Shadows tells the tale of the once-wealthy Collins family of Collinsport, Maine. Headed by matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Pfeiffer), the family’s cannery business has fallen by the wayside and the remaining Collins family members, including Elizabeth’s daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), Roger’s son David (Gulliver McGrath), David’s hard-drinking psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), groundskeeper Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley) and newly-arrived governess Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), all reside in a decaying mansion living with literal ghosts from the past. One night a strange man (Johnny Depp) calling himself Barnabas Collins shows up claiming to be the family’s long lost descendent who was turned into a vampire centuries earlier after refusing the advances of a witch named Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green). Upon promising he can return the Collins family to their former glory, Elizabeth allows Barnabas to stay, but he soon discovers that Angelique is still around and still determined to have him at any cost.

Maybe if the original Dark Shadows had had a stronger afterlife beyond its extremely vocal (and almost rabid), but limited collection of fans, the story of Burton’s version would have made more sense to modern movie audiences. The director stayed true to the vision and spirit of the original serial by crafting a feature film which plays exactly like a soap opera. Dark Shadows opens with Victoria’s arrival to Collinwood Manor with an already-established secret to her name as she enters into the world of this problematic family with their own dark history. The Collins family comes face to face with that history in the form of Barnabas, whose presence in Collinwood unleashes a series of events which have a hand in changing everyone’s fates. Dark Shadows continues throughout its runtime to operate very much on the level of a daytime soap opera mixed with a gothic backdrop and otherworldly elements. There are rivalries, suspicions, romances, dalliances and betrayals all seen throughout the course of Dark Shadows. Characters appear, depart and even die as the plot veers in a multitude of directions, perfectly mirroring the style of daytime storytelling. Even the movie’s ending, which many mistakenly thought was presumptuously setting itself up for a sequel, retains that soap opera conclusion which suggests that story of the Collins family is never truly over.

Dark Shadows wouldn’t have been Dark Shadows without a steady stream of oddness, which Burton’s movie has in spades. The dysfunctionality of the entire Collins clan screams to an off-center gothic nature, particularly in the way everyone relates to each other. Greatly contributing to the overall sense of weird is the movie’s comedy, which is the very definition of tongue-in-cheek drollness. There are scenes of the movie laughing at the early 70s time period like when Barnabas is showing his knowledge of Collinwood to Elizabeth by opening a secret room he believes no one knows of but him, revealing a space full on crocheted items. “That’s where I keep my macrame,” Elizabeth comments dryly. A later scene sees Dark Shadows laughing good-naturedly at its daytime ancestry by having Barnabas recount the tragic events of his past as he slowly clings to an organ, holding on to it and causing somber music to occur in time with what he’s describing. Once he finishes, Barnabas collapses on the organ, leading to a dramatic outburst of music from the instrument perfectly in sync with the conclusion of his story. The humor does eventually take a turn for the goofy, but rebounds thanks to subtle touches, including a series of never ending nonplussed looks from Carolyn and a wonderfully overblown finale in which Burton goes all out, incorporating elements of Death Becomes Her and The Exorcist for an ending totally in keeping with the gleefully batshit crazy nature of everything that’s come before.

One of the things which might have escaped audiences when Dark Shadows first came out, is just how much of a feminist film it is. In fact, Dark Shadows could well be one of Burton’s most female-centric offerings ever. Barnabas may be the movie’s central figure, but he is painted very early on as a slightly pathetic fool with good-ish intentions. Instead, it’s the women of Dark Shadows who wield true power. Elizabeth is the matriarch and true head of the family, fiercely protective of the Collins name and oversees the business, even after Barnabas makes his return. Angelique is a woman who was undone when her rejected affections towards Barnabas spurned a desire for revenge which led to her becoming the town’s most successful businesswoman and the sole reason for the Collins’s earlier downfall from prominence. Finally, Julia is a woman of medicine, something rarely seen during that time. Barnabas is quick to note this when told of Julia’s profession, commenting with astonishment: “what an age this is.” Julia turns to Elizabeth and asks: “Is he for real?’” Elizabeth, Angelique and Julia are indeed each products of the 1970s where women were challenging previous ideals and mores. It’s a theme which Dark Shadows takes as many opportunities as possible to explore, from Julia at one point seducing Barnabas, to Elizabeth asking Victoria during her interview: “Do you think the sexes should be equal,” to which the latter replies: “Heavens no, men would become unmanageable.”

You won’t find many casts having as much fun on screen as the one assembled for Dark Shadows. Everyone in attendance showed up to the set in order to play, which they do in the hugely spirited collection of performances. Depp delivers what you’d expect him to in a Burton role, but kills it when playing Barnabas’s more “fish out of water” moments with a gentlemanly properness. Green channels Joan Crawford in the best of ways, commanding the stage in diva style and taking the spotlight away from Depp every time the two are on screen together. Yet it’s Pfeiffer (playing her character in a way that suggests Elizabeth knows she’s in a soap opera) who truly soars thanks to a concentrated campiness she gives in the movie’s more “serious” scenes and a series of expertly-timed eye-rolls and scowls in the comedic ones.

It’s hard to say if the fates had intended for Dark Shadows to be a critical and commercial failure, but that it was. While the zigzag nature of the movie’s tone was too much for some, many were also worn out from the frequent teaming up of Burton and Depp, making Dark Shadows their last collaboration to date. The fact that the movie was the only high-profile release to come out following the box-office monster that was The Avengers that May didn’t help matters in the least, suggesting that perhaps it might have had a slightly fairer chance with an October release. Even the movie’s target audience, the hardcore, lifelong Dark Shadows devotees of the original series, turned up their noses at Burton’s version and his interpretation of their beloved Collins family, making the release one of the costlier bombs of the year.

The complaints from longtime fans aren’t totally unfounded. Indeed there are parts of Dark Shadows that just don’t work; namely the entire second act. The movie spends far too much time watching Barnabas engage in silly hijinks like smoking pot with a bunch of hippies and trying to find the right kind of sleeping arrangements (moments inserted, no doubt, at the behest of producer/star Depp). All of this ended up being to the detriment of the other characters and their admittedly intriguing side stories, most of which are never followed up on or explored thoroughly. Originally, screenwriter John August (who had penned the likes of Big Fish, Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie for Burton) signed on and delivered an initial draft of Dark Shadows he claims was low on the humor and more gothic and terrifying, drawing on inspirations from The Godfather. It’s unknown what kind of movie we would have gotten had Burton stuck to August’s draft, but it’s safe to say that the version of Dark Shadows which did make it to the screen has actually found its place among a small following who have embraced the movie’s throwback qualities, tongue-in-cheek humor and overall oddness. When asked during the movie’s press tour what he hoped to impart with Dark Shadows, Burton replied that it was that sense of weirdness and undefinable nature he himself got from watching the original series as a child that he sought to replicate with his film. Needless to say, he managed to do just that.

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