Friday, May 25, 2012

Tim Burton's Dark Shadows Fails Because It Subverts the Original Characters

The greatest strength and pleasure of TV's Dark Shadows (1966-71) were its characters. I doubt this Gothic soap opera was ever scary to an adult (though "the hand of Count Petofi" scared me as a child). The show is famous for its bloopers. Wobbly tombstones and boom mics in the frame. This is why some modern critics claim that the show's primary appeal is as camp comedy.

While the original Dark Shadows isn't particularly scary, especially in a modern horror context, I wouldn't call it camp. The show remains entertaining and engaging -- at times, even suspenseful, eerie, and poignant -- because of its characters.

Characters are created by the actor plus the script. Characters are what engage an audience. This is especially true of a TV series. Audiences tune in, sometimes for years on end, because they've come to love the characters. The plot is secondary.

Dark Shadows fans love the characters, and the actors who portray them. Jonathan Frid is Barnabas Collins. And although the character of Victoria Winters was always written true to form, I never could believe Betsy Durkin or Carolyn Groves as Victoria Winters. Only Alexandra Moltke (aka Alexandra Isles) is Victoria.

Many TV remakes fail creatively, even if the new script is true to the original character, because the lead actor is different. Patrick McGoohan is The Prisoner. Darren McGavin is Kolchak, The Night Stalker. Lindsay Wagner is The Bionic Woman. The remakes failed, and good riddance.

The 1991 Dark Shadows TV remake failed for many reasons. 1. The original was shot on a TV soundstage, which is more surreal and cozy then the remake's outdoor locations. 2. The original's daily half-hour installments maintained a long, drawn-out, suspenseful pace, which the remake's weekly one-hour installments couldn't duplicate. The former pacing worked better for the series' many characters and complex, interweaving storylines.

But the remake's biggest flaw was that it changed the characters. Not only did it cast new actors (unavoidable, but a still serious shortcoming), but the script subverted the characters. The original Maggie was a wholesome girl-next-door. The new Maggie was a slut. The original Roger was a prissy, stuffed shirt. The new Roger was a hunky beefcake.

In short, they were not Maggie and Roger. Not even parodies of Maggie and Roger.

With its new set of characters (both as written and as performed), the 1991 Dark Shadows was not a remake, but an entirely new show. Yes, it poached the original characters' names, and some plot points, but that made for a remake in name only.

Sometimes classic characters are reimagined (e.g., Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Ebeneezer Scrooge). But you can only reimagine a character so far, before it becomes an entirely new character.

Tim Burton's 2012 Dark Shadows film is not a remake, but a parody of the original TV series. Parodies are a tricky thing. Parody characters are shallow duplicates; neither the original characters, nor substantive characters in their own right. They are caricatures to laugh at, rather than the original people the fans care about.

Perhaps Burton understood that Dark Shadows could not be remade on any serious level. Not only is the original cast unavailable, but the original characters were written with a white bread innocence (WASPy wholesome girls and respectful young gentlemen, albeit amid vampires and witches), that would be laughed at by many of today's young viewers.

Dark Shadows's original characters are the stuff of nostalgia for a simpler place and time: the fictitious town of Collinsport. The show ran during turbulent times (1966-71), with nary a mention of Vietnam, race riots, or bra-burning. Despite its horror content, the series emotionally cocooned audiences from "relevant" topics. A cocooning aesthetically supported by the show being shot on soundstages, which, as I noted above, are more cozy and surreal than are (more realistic) outdoor locations.

Burton's Dark Shadows does what Hollywood does best: makeup and special effects. Much of the new cast look like the original characters, but these caricatures are not written as the original characters. And because the characters are different, the film fails as a remake.

Fans seeking a remake will be disappointed -- and I suspect that few fans will be satisfied with a mere parody.


For more about actors in horror, and about the relationship between horror and comedy, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

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