Vampires, All of Them: On Dark Shadows and God Bless America


A significant portion of Tim Burton’s output over the past decade has been concerned with slipping the “Burton treatment” to susceptible texts: Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—and now, Dark Shadows.

A supernaturally themed daily daytime soap, Dark Shadows aired on ABC from 1966 to 1971, ruling the after-school time slot. Its story revolved around the family life of vampire Barnabas Collins, a figure of purposeful aristocratic bearing and seductive decadence played by Jonathan Frid, who died just weeks before the premiere of Burton’s film. Shot one-take live-to-tape, with all the attendant imperfections of blown lines, wobbling candelabras, and uncooperative stage doors, the show can be reduced to camp, merely the sum of its shoddy elements—but it also provided a generation of young Americans a glamorously gloomy antidote to the mainstream televised entertainment of the day, personified by Love, American Style and the Carpenters.

Burton standby Johnny Depp fills the Barnabas role in this new film version, which begins with a prologue, narrated in a grave rumble by Depp, that reveals the origin of the Collins curse. Leaving Liverpool, a still-mortal Barnabas arrives with his parents in Colonial-era Maine, where they build a commercial empire and establish the family seat, Collinwood Mansion. As a young man, Barnabas is torn between profane and sacred loves—with lowly servant Angelique (Eva Green) and hypergamous fiancée, Josette (Bella Heathcote), respectively—and winds up with neither, for the spurned Angelique practices black magic, hexing Josette to death and Barnabas to endless suffering as a vampire, imprisoned in a chained-up coffin and buried (eternally) alive.

The bulk of Dark Shadows takes place in 1972, after Barnabas has been accidentally exhumed. Dazzled by paved roads and McDonald’s, Barnabas arrives at a half-ruined Collinwood to take his place at the head of what remains of his family—matriarch and distant cousin, Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer); her son and useless heir, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller, channeling John Saxon); his teenage sister, Carolyn (Chloë Moretz); and Roger’s troubled motherless child, David (Gulliver McGrath), haunted by Mommy’s ghost. To deal with David’s issues, two additional members of the household have been acquired: psychiatrist Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) and governess Victoria, a spitting image of Barnabas’s lost love (also played by Heathcote). A less welcome familiar face is the magnate who has ruined the Collinses’ fame and fortune through the decades—none other than the eternal Angelique.

This is a platoon of a cast, few of whom have time to make much of an impression as, in under two hours, Burton’s Dark Shadows must distill the essence of a 1,225-episode story arc (recently released by MPI Home Video on 131 DVDs!). If the actors’ shticks leave only faint impressions, the art direction by Burton stalwart Rick Heinrichs reliably stamps itself on the imagination, his Collinwood Mansion a masterpiece of ornamental fretwork, octopi chandeliers, and hidden passageways.

More than its gothic tropes, though, Burton’s Dark Shadows is committed to fish-out-of-water material—culture-clash humor that rummages through the collective thrift-store memory of the ’70s. The film’s best moment features a cameoing Alice Cooper, performing “The Ballad of Dwight Fry” in Collinwood’s Great Hall, tying together Barnabas and Cooper as kindred icons of heroic, morose theatricality against square “silent majority”–era America.

More frequently, this Dark Shadows relies on slow-pitch wasn’t-the-past-dumb humor: The 1970s are lampooned for macramé art and inane pothead conversation, Love Story and lava lamps and the Steve Miller Band. The 1770s are held to ridicule through Barnabas’s florid language, Romantic agony, and droit du seigneur chauvinism. Significantly, the screenplay is by Seth Grahame-Smith, author of “mash-up” novels including Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, soon to be a major motion picture produced by Burton, with a novelty concept whose bestseller popularity proves that our creatively anemic present ain’t none too smart neither.

In the midst of all this is an unusually dandy bit of dress-up from Depp, weaving his elongated Nosferatu fingers through the air, recalling an exchange in 1994’s Ed Wood. (“Bela, how do you do that?” “You must be double-jointed. And you must be Hungarian.”) Wood is still by far Depp and Burton’s best collaboration, exhibiting the balance of tone between kitsch parody and zealous fantasy that’s missing in Dark Shadows, less a resurrection than a clumsy desecration.

The shadow of Alice Cooper also stretches across Bobcat Goldthwait’s God Bless America, another new film about beautiful monsters preying on American peasantry. According to Tara Lynne Barr’s Roxy, the philosophical half of this film’s murdering duo, it was Cooper who “gave us rock that upset authority figures and made the outcast feel not so all alone.”

The outcast in God Bless America is Frank (Joel Murray)—a divorced, fiftyish, glumly alcoholic white-collar worker introduced on one of his sleepless nights, entertaining homicidal fantasies about the couple next door. “They’re incapable of comprehending that their actions affect other people,” he muses, before another night in front of the TV, staring at uncivil reality programs and energy-drink ads with the same glassy eyes that Travis Bickle once cast over American Bandstand.

In the next few days, Frank will lose his job, become completely estranged from his young daughter, and be diagnosed with brain cancer. It’s like a nihilistic parody of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 Ikiru, in which a fatally ill, unloved middle-age bureaucrat, played by Takashi Shimura, is forced to find meaning in what life he has left. Shimura’s character exchanges a wasted life for selfless action, turning a cesspool into a public playground; Frank, however, decides to waste those responsible for the cesspool that America has become—starting with an ungrateful brat he sees on a program that’s clearly based on MTV’s My Super Sweet 16.

A veteran, Frank is a crack shot and quickly gains an admiring groupie in Roxy, a high school classmate of his first victim, who tags along to spur Frank into a program of cleansing cross-country killing, targeting members of a Westboro Baptist Church–type group, a bullying right-wing TV host, Tea Partiers, and even some nonpartisan assholes. (Lucky for Alice Cooper, they don’t seem to recollect that he voted for Bush.) I cannot remember an American movie that has painted such a vulgar picture of the pop-culture landscape since Idiocracy or Ghost World—the latter of which also, curiously, revolved around the mutually revitalizing relationship between a middle-age male misanthrope and a teenage female version of same, though Frank is exceedingly careful to maintain decorum with the underaged Bonnie to his Clyde. (“So we’re platonic spree-killers?” she asks, disappointed.)

The brief filmography of choke-voiced stand-up and God Bless America writer-director Goldthwait boasts some real black-comic accomplishments, including 1992’s Shakes the Clown—a dirty-joke burlesque of the spiritual cost of life in the comedy industry—and 2009’s World’s Greatest Dad, with Robin Williams grappling over how to grieve the death of a son who hardly deserved grief.

What World’s Greatest Dad found in the friction between emotional and intellectual instincts, and what God Bless America lacks, is conflict. Goldthwait’s latest doesn’t interrogate Frank’s warped decency or his conviction that “some folks just need killing” and offers no significant reason to second-guess him at any time. The interplay between Murray and Barr is closely and carefully handled, but when the monotonous squib-popping subsides, the movie is often static and talky, lapsing into criticism-hedging qualifications and anti-everything speechifying (“Nobody talks about anything anymore, they just regurgitate everything they see on TV”). From the film’s blinkered POV, there is no such thing as an “innocent bystander,” and no perspective is available outside of the all-enveloping disgust of Frank, Roxy, and their doting creator, who absolves their crimes while serving up paper targets and irreverent soundtrack cues.

Goldthwait must understand the irony of a protagonist condemning a society “where the weak are torn apart every week for our entertainment” and “nobody cares that they damage other people” in a movie that revels in the slaughter of the unarmed. And he must, understandably, have thought that any flinch might crack his film’s deadpan. But what’s less obvious is what this turkey shoot is meant to do, aside from providing a like-minded audience the vicarious cathartic thrill of watching a douchebag apocalypse—which Piranha 3D did with more élan and no self-righteousness. God Bless America adopts the scorched-earth moral certitude and guiltless body count of the “angry white male” Reagan-era action movie while turning the jingoistic politics inside out. It’s such a carefully studied parody, you might think you’re looking at the original.

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