Dark Shadows hit cinemas last week; not with a gargantuan Hulk-fist like The Avengers did, more like a delicate ripple of weird, a small duck turd sinking to the bottom of a pond with a comparatively-pitiful onomatopoeic plop. (“My shits are much more manly,” boasts a nearby swan, dropping a floater that would threaten the hull-integrity of any nearby ships to prove the point. “Iceburg ho!” The dude in the crow’s nest announces. “...Wait now, it is, in actual fact, a huge crap. The odorous brown scourge of the seas. It’s massive! Damn those swans and their crazy asses!” Even so, as we know, swans aren’t the manliest of creatures. They look innocuous and effeminate, right up until the point one decides you’ve looked at it in a manner it disapproves off. Then it barrels after you, pissed off, like a hungover hippopotamus. Determined to leave with your balls in its beak. Trust me, I’ve been there. They’re evil things indeed.)
Inspired by the eponymous TV series from the ‘60s, Dark Shadows is the story of the Collins family. In the 18th century, they set up a fishing town, Collinsport, and built their ostentatious manor home there. Their playboy son, Barnabas, in the course of his unscrupulous panty-surfing (you know how these celebrities are) breaks the heart of Angelique. This family servant and uber-bitch witch (surreptitious witch, I should say. To wit: "What’s that huge hairy wart on your nose? Not to mention the black cat, and the huge-ass cauldron standing sentinel in your living room? The neighbours are starting to talk.”
“What are you insinuating? Enough questions! That damn dog has shat on my roses again! I’m now off to make a brew to shrivel its genitalia to pathetic-raisin-form! ...I mean to say, take a nap. That’s what I’m going to do. Forget that last. Slip of the tongue.”) curses the family, killing Barnabas’s parents and dooming him to the eternal, aberrant fate of a vampire. (Albeit a devilishly dapper one, as you can see in this image from cineheroes.)
The whole thing is permeated by that indefinable, unmistakable sense of Tim Burton. It permeates proceedings like the proverbial musty smell. (In a positive sense, that is. I may be bringing to mind a dodgy alley that reeks of piss or something here. Maybe I should skip this analogy.) I vaguely recall an interview that commended his unique ‘fingerprints,’ which is certainly le mot juste. Burton is the original auteur, and you only have to see that encounter between Barnabas’s latest love interest and her predecessor to know who is in the director’s chair. The dichotomy of humour and horror in Dark Shadows is typical of the director’s output. (As evidenced in a favourite movie of mine, Sleepy Hollow. The police officer erupting into the doctor’s office, demanding to admire a mangled headless corpse-mess, results in the outraged admonition, “this is most irregular, constable!” He merely replies, “I should hope so, doctor,” before proceeding to poke around in some maggot-strewn viscera. It’s a macabre scene, but an amusing one, that retains an oddly skewed charm.)
This is what makes his long-running collaborative efforts with Johnny Depp so effective. The actor, too, thrives on the weird. With Burton at the reins, he has played the Mad Hatter, Willy Wonka, the fantastically camp Ichabod Crane (Hiding in the corner on seeing a small spider and exhorting his early-teens assistant to “Kill it! No, stun it!” among his moments of great glory and valour) and other assorted crazies. The pair seem to revel in putting peculiar characters in peculiar situations. As such, the concept of a vampire from 1760 awakening in the 70‘s and pursued by a vengeful witch, (plus the strangeness of the two of them vying for supremacy in the fishing company stakes) finds them in their element. The genre-divide is as plain as ever, with some violent undead-feeding-on-some-hippies (choking on their unwashed hair more than once, I presume) followed neatly by the hilarity of mistaking Alice Cooper for “the ugliest woman I’ve ever seen.”
Dark Shadows, all in all, doesn’t rate among the best of the pair’s creations (the likes of Edward Scissorhands, Sweeney Todd and the lunatic take on Alice in Wonderland surpass it in my view). Despite this, it’s an unconventional experience as always, quite unlike any other moviemaker’s offerings. Who else could have lent such a creepy aesthetic to source material as harmless as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? (Young Willy in the movie wears a set of braces not unlike something you’d see Hannibal Lecter sporting. “What’s that you say? He’s eaten someone else’s face off? Damn it, I haven’t finished my crossword. Just got that hideous metal contraption on him, I’ll be there in a minute.” I’d like to know just what inspired him to pull the ungodly contraption in this picture from the California Literary Review out of his ass to festoon his leading man with in Sleepy Hollow.) Being typical of Burton and Depp makes a movie very untypical indeed, and whether fan or not, it has to be conceded that’s a feat worthy of acknowledgement.
Finally, a fantastic intro to Dark Shadows for your delectation:
Header Image- Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, December 2007. AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian.
Article by Chris Littlechild
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