“Serious” horror fans can stay up for days bemoaning the devastation the Twilight phenomenon has wreaked on vampire fiction. But if you ask me, the death knell of that genre was wrung a lot earlier: When Otto the bus driver temporarily moved in with the Simpsons and inquired if their library included anything “written from the vampire’s point of view,” a nation was put on notice that the elegant self-pity of the Anne Rice canon had gone ludicrously mainstream.
That’s why I’m willing to go out on a limb and state that Tim Burton has made a canny move in apparently reimagining the 1960s soap Dark Shadows as a broad spoof. Up to this point, all we’ve known about the movie (due May 11) is that it’s a period piece set in the early ’70s; casting and stills indicated a wryly somber salute to a program that had been a childhood rite of passage to the parents of Team Edward. But then the trailer dropped two days ago -- on Ellen, no less -- and any such presupposition went out the window.
Wry? Only in the most vaudevillian definition of the term. Somber? Not by half. There’s floating toothbrushes, and lava-lamp gags, and high-flying supernatural coitus, and
well, just look at the thing:
Just what Dr. Van Helsing ordered, as far as I can see. While I might have been hoping for a slight spin on the essentially serious 1991 TV remake of DS, this trailer makes me realize that approach wouldn’t have worked. The Stephenie Meyer school of Hot Topic angst has turned the plight of the soulful undead into an eyeball-rolling cliché, and any “straight” revisitation of their commercial forbears would only come across as more of the same. Instead, Burton’s tack on the material (if the trailer is indeed indicative of the film in toto) homes in on the inherent silliness of the modern vampire myth: the idea that a Nosferatu who “outed” himself to humans would engender lustful fascination, affectionate protectiveness, or really any reaction beyond “Kill that sonofabitch! Kill him with fire!” And while the Burton/Johnny Depp partnership has over time yielded its own predictable SOP, this outing might stand among the best of it; the trailer certainly exploits Depp’s proven mastery at playing characters who proudly declare their position in a world that couldn’t be less hospitable. Call me crazy, but Barnabas’ hilariously futile inveighing against Karen Carpenter looks to be right up there with Hunter S. Thompson’s firm yet utterly unsolicited decree of “I want nothing” to a casino staffer in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Another sign that Team Tim is on the right track with this interpretation: All the right people hate it. The talkback toads at AICN are croaking to the high heavens about the new Dark Shadows raping their childhoods while pining for what a more “respectful” adaptation could have accomplished. Excuse me -- are we talking about the same Dark Shadows here? The 1991 version notwithstanding, the original series -- which remains the bedrock of the franchise -- was a painfully awkward, paint-by-numbers Gothic that was almost impossible to watch without breaking into flop sweat on behalf of everybody involved. Would the scenery come crashing down? Would star Jonathan Frid would go up on his lines? (He did, and with the regularity of Christopher Lee heading for shelter at the first sight of dawn). Just because a lot of us chose to love it doesn’t mean it wasn’t also completely ridiculous -- and if we can’t appreciate an affectionate parody, we might as well flip up our lapels and take our place in front of Hot Topic.
The one point I’ll concede to the movie’s detractors is that it’s going to sink like a stone at the box office. Its name recognition is among old fogeys who, as we’ve established, might be more likely to protest it than patronize it; and as for the Twilight set, as we’ve also established, they’re not exactly the most receptive bunch to good-natured ribbing. Dark Shadows will get crushed by the second week of The Avengers and maybe even hemorrhage comedy-minded viewers to the simultaneous opening of The Dictator. But some of Burton’s best, most enduring movies were duds upon initial release: Look how long it took for The Nightmare Before Christmas to be thought of as anything but a well-intentioned folly. Ten years from now, Burton could be remembered as the guy who broke Breaking Dawn and gave True Blood a shot of new blood. And by then, we’ll all have moved on to bitching about the Walking Dead musical.