Our columnist defends Tim Burton’s comedic re-imagining of the vampire soap.
By John Mitchell
The first trailer for Tim Burton’s big-screen adaptation of the late-’60s/ early-’70s vampire soap opera “Dark Shadows” dropped Thursday, and it has sharply divided fans.
In one corner are “Shadows” purists, who seem none too pleased with the director’s decision to re-imagine the campy but deadly serious soap as a gonzo comedy. In the other corner are more casual fans and Burton enthusiasts, who are seeing shades of “Beetlejuice” and “Edward Scissorhands” and loving it.
I’m on the record as falling in the latter category. I grew up on reruns of the original soap (yeah, I was a weird kid) and also loved NBC’s short-lived prime-time reboot in the early ’90s. If the original series was a true-to-genre soap opera (just, you know, with a heavier lean on the supernatural), the ’90s take was “Melrose Place”-meets-“Twin Peaks” but with fangs. The problem is, a straight take on the original (which is where Burton’s loyalties lie — he’s never given any indication he cares about the TV reboot) wouldn’t fly with today’s sophisticated film audience, and playing to the ’90s retread would have resulted in a film that would have a lot in common with Neil Jordan’s “Interview With the Vampire.” And while that’s certainly not a bad thing — “Interview” is a killer vampire flick — it has nothing to do with Tim Burton.
For its ’90s return, “Shadows” turned up the sex factor; it was a sudsy drama with a chest-baring Ben Cross as Barnabas, Angelique busting out of her corset and a plot that focused heavily on Barnabas’ attempts to cure his vampirism so he could bring the sexytimes with Victoria Winters, whom he suspected may have been the reincarnation of Josette DuPres, the love of his mortal life back in the late 18th century.
That’s all well and good, and a big-screen treatment of that might have even played well. But that was never going to happen with Burton at the helm; it’s not his game. The dark and spooky aesthetic he created for films like “Sleepy Hollow” and “Sweeney Todd” had the look fans of the series were after, and I think that — mixed with Burton’s fanboy enthusiasm for the project — is why purists were so psyched that he was directing. But Burton doesn’t really do romance, particularly not lusty, forbidden love stories.
There are several directors who do, and who do it well, including “Shadows” star Michelle Pfeiffer’s frequent collaborator Stephen Frears (“Dangerous Liaisons,” “Cheri,” “Mary Reilly”) and “Interview” director Jordan (“The End of the Affair,” “The Crying Game”). Joe Wright (“Atonement,” “Pride and Prejudice,” the upcoming “Anna Karenina”) has practically built his career on the stuff.
But I suspect they wouldn’t have been able to grasp the weirdo wonderment that makes “Shadows” so special to fans. It’s based on a soap, after all, and is so over-the-top that to direct it as a straight romantic vampire drama might have meant significant alterations to the story to “normalize” it. It would have had to be boiled down to the basics. That still might have made for a good film, but (real talk) it also might have meant that something really dynamic would be translated into a highbrow, slightly more horror-leaning version of “Twilight.” And, um, no one wants that.
On the flip side, if Burton had kept the deliberately exaggerated and theatrical style of the original without acknowledging the comedy inherent in going so over-the-top (this is the literal definition of “camp”), it would have been unwatchably ridiculous. Soaps are absurd but play their ridiculousness with the utmost seriousness. It’s something we all know and accept about them, but it’s not something that would work, not even for a second, on the big screen — particularly in a big-budget film starring two three-time Oscar nominees (Johnny Depp and Pfeiffer), the twice-nominated Helena Bonham Carter and “Little Children” nominee Jackie Earle Haley.
The only thing left for Burton to do was turn the volume up even higher and trust his talented actors to work their magic with what better be a damn clever script. It’s hard to embrace absurdity without it coming across as farce, but you know who is a master of doing exactly that? Tim Burton. He did it in “Beetlejuice” and “Edward Scissorhands.” He even brought some genuine emotion to it with the more delicate “Ed Wood.”
It’s been a while since Burton worked this particular magic, but after seeing the “Shadows” trailer I’m feeling like he may have done it again.
What did you think of the “Dark Shadows” trailer? Let us know in the comments below and tweet me at @JohnMitchell83 with your thoughts and suggestions for future columns!
Check out everything we’ve got on “Dark Shadows.”
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