Monday, July 19, 2010

Dark Shadows 2004

Well, I finally saw it--the unfinished pilot for a re-invention of Dark Shadows back in 2004.  The WB pulled the plug before director P.J. Hogan completed it.  Right now Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are planning on doing a major motion picture version.

Honestly, I'd heard lots of disparaging things about it.  Among those who seemed to dislike this pilot intensely was the man who introduced it!  He was something of a personal assistant to Dan Curtis, the original creator of the series.  One thing mentioned over and over again was "not Dan's vision."  When it came to details, one complaint was that actress Marley Shelton, who played Victoria Winters was "allowed" (yes, that was the word he used) to have blond hair.

Just for the record--I don't give a damn about Dan Curtis' vision.  My judgment is based on what ended up on screen, the story told and the characters whose lives I'm supposed to care about.  Curtis got to tell his version undiluted in the motion picture House of Dark Shadows.  It was fun. It also lacked nearly every single element that made me care about the show in the first place.  And multiple reports from those involved say how much Curtis opposed the whole idea of making Barnabas the vampire sympathetic at all.

(It occurs to me some might be unfamiliar with Dark Shadows.  A "gothic soap opera" aired during the late 1960s, this was the first television show to portray a vampire with sympathy.  It made its star, Jonathan Frid, for a time a star in rather the same way as Leonard Nimoy was during the same period.)

The pilot was shown as part of the 2010 Dark Shadows Festival in Burbank this last weekend.  Amongst fans of the original show many the cutting criticism has been aimed at the 2004 pilot.

I liked it.  Upon stating this to people after the event, I got some nods and a few incredulous looks.  Listening to them, patterns emerged.  One was intense dislike that a particular character seemed more physically attractive. Likewise another was less poised, less imperious.  Both in terms of the pilot were minor characters given little development at that point.  Methinks the former personal assistant (who also seems involved with the Curtis estate and is certainly pivotal in the DS Festivals) revealed much when he make disappointed/puzzled noises about the actress who played Carolyn--both in this and in the 1991 revival.  He found their performances "odd."  I found them both very good--genuinely rebellious young women with wild sides.

Overall, methinks the 2004 pilot worked as a startling re-imagining of the story, supported by a top-knotch cast.  Although incomplete (whole scenes were never finished, many special effects were unfinished, etc.) one could see the "shape" of the work.  I rather understand why the plug was pulled--mostly a matter of style, at least IMHO.  It "felt" more like a film than a t.v. show.  Light for example was highly stylized, in a manner I suspect would be extremely difficult to sustain for 22 hour-long episodes.  There was also an unrelenting tone of mystery, suspense, danger, etc.  Again, hard to sustain.  Even more importantly the story was almost unrelenting in its lack of humor or kindness.  Really, the only hint of such was in Vicki's slight interaction with David and with Carolyn's scene with Joe.  Among other things, this robs the more dramatic moments of some power by making them fail to stand out.  Keep in mind this would also be my criticism of the motion picture House of Dark Shadows.  In the 1991 version, for example, some touching scenes involving Willie Loomis popped up almost every other episode.  One reason I still prefer Frid's Barnabas over Ben Cross is that the former smiled and seemed to mean it.

Now to the good.  A lot of plot holes from previous versions seemed closed.  How for example did Willie not end up drained to the last drop by the no-doubt ravenous Barnabas?  In this version, Willie has a girlfriend/accomplice who slakes the vampire's thirst.  Julia Hoffman seems to take over the role given to Dave Woodard before now--a respected local doctor.  Much more logical, and the glimpse we got of her conveyed a sharp intelligence coupled with a fascination over these strange attacks in Collinsport.  David really does come across as a disturbed little boy, and Vicki as someone qualified to deal with him (which helps explain the equivalent of a governess in this day and age).

Performances seem excellent throughout, but most especially Carolyn (Jessica Chastain) and Roger (Martin Donovan), the latter coming across as someone with genuine complex reasons for his rather appalling behavior.  Alexander Gould as David Collins also did extremely well.  Barnabas, Vicki, Elizabeth and others did well but those three really shined.  Matt Czuchry as Willie Loomis was more almost-funny than real, and frankly seemed to be mugging.

Like virtually all versions of Dark Shadows, this one feels rushed.  Perhaps due to unfilmed scenes, the whole arrival of Barnabas and his taking over the Old House takes much too little screen time.  Again, Vicki Winters is made the double (and presumed reincarnation) of Josette--a decision I disliked in 1991 and now.  In the original show, Josette is a ghost.  Barnabas, mentally disturbed to say the least, is engaged in an emotional tug of war between turning Josette look-alike Maggie Evans into a brainwashed copy of his lost beloved, or pursuing the love of someone here-and-now.  The conflict between his past and his future was to me a very powerful one and while I understand the urge to simplify the tale, I miss the resonances.  Angelique appears as a kind of evil ghost in the 2004 pilot, with the mild hint that she has become active again now that Barnabas is free--but we didn't really get to explore that idea in the pilot.  I like that there was no effort anywhere to get actors who resembled the cast from the 1960s.  Vicki Winters is blond, not brunette.  Carolyn is a redhead, not blond.  Ditto Angelique.  Roger looks like a forceful, withdrawn man rather than the sarcastic dilletante we all knew back in the day.  And so on.

Overall I was left even more frustrated  that the series never made it to the air.  What I saw intrigued me and left me wanting more.  Methinks it might well have accomplished what any such remake so needs to do--draw in new fans, new viewers (in the manner of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica--and with approximately as much howling from the die hard old fans).


David Alex Nahmod said...

A blonde Vicki seemed wrong to me, as did a less than grand Liz, who didn't feel like the Lady of the Manor. But overall, it was well made and spooky. I also wanted more.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen it but I know I will love most of it and I know lots of fans who did love it. I tend to run with fans who are receptive of different versions. I look forward to seeing it and what a great review. I hope to meet you although I don't know if you are on the West Coast. I will be at NYC 45th anniversary next year!

Anonymous said...

Oh how lucky you were to get to see this, Zahir!! I'm a big fan of Alec Newman and hopefully I'll get to see the unfinished pilot -- what did you think of his performance?

Zahir Blue said...

David -- I honestly cannot see what Victoria's hair color has to do with anything. Just MHO.

Taescharmed -- I do live in LA. It'd be nice to go to NYC, but unless my finances improve...well, we can hope.

Nicole -- The DS Festival is every July, and you can usually see the pilot there. Alec Newman's Barnabas showed lots of promise, including genuine shock and later anguish regarding Josette's "return" and then rage at any hint that Angelique may have done so as well. The most interesting interaction actually was with Willie, with just a hint of being some kind of cultishness.

Amy said...

Is this on DVD?

Zahir Blue said...

Amy--it is not available on DVD. If the Depp/Burton film is enough of a hit, in theory it might be part of 2-disk special edition. We can hope, anyway.

Midnite said...

Marvelous review!

rassmguy said...

Only pretentious people say "methinks." Hence, your opinion isn't worth much, as it's the opinion of a poser.