The Misery of Dark Shadows

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Last week, I watched Tim Burton take one of my favorite TV shows, “Dark Shadows”, crack it open, gut it of nearly all of its original charms, stuff it with seventies jokes and sex until it was as bloated and corrupt as Last Gasp Elvis, and then he sent it roaring across the silver screen like the leisure-suited horror show monster it was—killing beloved characters, and leaving the original narrative landscape a charred wasteland.  I was horrified.  I was angry.  I was in misery: misery with a capital “M”.  That’s right: I was in Misery, specifically the part where Annie Wilkes, outraged by the shabby script of a cliffhanger, totally flips out right there in the theatre.  As Burton puppeteered the mouth of  Barnabus Collins to recite “I’m a picker/I’m a grinner/I’m a lover/And I’m a sinner”, I was right there with Annie, yelling “Barnabus Collins never quoted a cockadoodie Steve Miller song!!!”

Surely you remember Annie.  The “Number One Fan” who was distraught to see the untimely end of the “Misery” romance/adventure novel series?  The wildly unpredictable creature who demanded that storytellers follow rules?  The killer who, by the execution of unimaginable force and mental cruelty, brought her favorite character back to life?

Okay, she was crazy, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t have a point.  Within her insistence upon consistency and continuity pulsates the idea that a creative work is more than something to be passively ingested by its audience.  It is an object of emotional investment.  The success or failure of a creative work is dependent largely upon the dividends of that investment.  Annie Wilkes teaches us that a creative work succeeds when it respects its audience and honors its values.  These ideas are especially relevant in this age of the “reboot”, a time when a significant amount of popular culture is devoted to the reanimation of established characters and their reconceptualization for a contemporary audience.   This audience comes pre-invested, which presents both a safe bet and a dangerous game for any auteur who attempts to rally a comeback for known characters.

Through the magic of a sort of retcon revisionism zombies shamble across the pristine and proper Regency era estates of Jane Austen,  a pit fighting Sherlock Holmes cracks skulls and cases , Snow White and Alice have taken up swords to clear a path through an enchanted forest of resistance grown up between themselves and happily ever after.   Does this rehash zeitgeist represent a bankruptcy of creativity?  Is it symptomatic of a mass onset of cultural ADD, in which audiences, conditioned by a half century of television no longer have the stomach for character development, or the time to orient themselves to unknown narrative landscapes?  I don’t know, but I will say that when Shakespeare wrote “there is nothing new under the sun”, he was actually cribbing from the Bible.

At this point in our cultural development, we sit on top of a mountain of literature, mythology, and folklore so vast, and so rich in universal resonance, anyone looking to profit in the creative sphere would almost be crazy not to reboot a “classic” of some kind or another.  And let us not forget for even a single moment that we are talking about commercialism here.  We are talking about the creative work as a commodity, and the audience as consumers.    “The End” is a euphemism for “To Be Continued At A Theatre Near You.”  When the likes of Tim Burton and Guy Ritchie, et al, look to capitalize on our familiarity with an established character, the question “Will the audience buy it?” isn’t just a monetary one.  It’s a question of credibility.

Annie Wilkes, bless her unfathomably dark and psychotic heart, is the hero at the heart of this essay. She is the Number One Fan who embodies the principles of audience investment.  When we consider her, we are considering the consumer.  What holds true for Annie also holds true for us.  Like Annie, whose all-consuming adoration for the romantic heroine Misery Chastaine precipitated that character’s resurrection from the grave, we want MORE OF THE SAME.  We want characters we know and love, and then we want them again and again.   These characters have “been there” for us.  In their inalienable consistency, we find comfort.  We lose ourselves in a world not our own, yet with each visit, we somehow make those worlds our home away from home.   This was certainly the case with my “Dark Shadows” experience.  I was two years old when ABC cancelled this “gothic soap opera”, yet I can still cop to a certain spin on the common claim amongst first generation fans who “ran home from school” to watch the show.   The school from which I had run was graduate school, and I made up for lost time by watching 2 episodes a day, 5 days a week, as broadcast by what was then known as the Sci Fi Channel.  I was joined by my mom, who had first watched the series when she was pregnant with me.  We had a blast, full-circle style.  We loved the show’s community theatre aesthetic: the tiny cast of larger-than-life hams and the multiple roles they played, the storylines plundered from the pages of Bronte, Shelley, James, Poe, Wilde, et al.  Its brazen corniness was only surpassed by its slapdashery.  But the forgotten lines, costume malfunctions, miscued camera angles, and the audaciously ersatz special effects only made us love it more.  For that one hour a day, amongst the vampires, witches, ghosts, and werewolves, Mom and I could count on a respite from the grim banalities of housework and job-searching, respectively.

We are a voracious audience, it’s true, but there’s a catch.  Our relationship with these works is not at all passive.  We are not merely ingesting these things.  We are interacting with them.   It’s a venture of the mind as well as the heart, and ultimately, both must be satisfied.  It’s not enough to give us another chapter starring our favorites.  Like Annie, we demand fairness.  Each new chapter must in some way honor the existing parameters of character and narrative.  The welded-shut car that crashed into the side of the mountain in part one of the cliffhanger must crash in part two as well.  To paraphrase Annie’s sentiment: The hero MUST stay inside the cockadoodie car.  Introducing elements in part two that were not in play in part one is “cheating.”  The original Dark Shadows, with its earnest corniness, was unintentionally hilarious; its deliberately jokey reboot is unbearably unfunny.  Foul on the play.

Because we know and love them so well, the rebooted character must tread a thin line towards our acceptance.  It must demonstrate growth of some kind, yet remain true to the original.  Any new “spins” on that character must pay tribute to the tradition from whence it came while flattering the contemporary values of the audience that supports it.   It’s an extremely tricky act to pull, but it has been done.  Guy Ritchie’s reboot of Sherlock Holmes is fair.   The ass-kicking Holmes 2K represents a radical departure from Holmes 1K, yet he is an acceptable reboot because Ritchie engages in a very obvious stewardship of the Holmesian trademarks, the character’s smug superiority, his impeccable powers of deduction, his undeniable charm.  But most remarkably, the films demonstrate a slavish devotion to the look and feel of the Holmesian era.  This fetishy obsession with the Victorian era ingeniously lends it an authenticity that makes the Holmes reboot almost historically credible.  What’s even more fantastic about the world Ritchie creates for his Holmes is that its clever steampunk aesthetic reminds astute members of the audience that even this version of the past is a product of the present.  As a contemporary audience, we are satisfied to see our hero inhabiting a past that conforms to our contemporary ideals.  By extension, it is not enough for Holmes to merely solve a mystery or catch the bad guy, he must kick his motherfucking ass.  Because that’s how things are settled these days.

You wouldn’t know it by watching Dark Shadows movie, but Burton has it in him to create a satisfactory reboot.  His 2010 film “Alice In Wonderland” delivered several beloved characters in their trademark insane glory.  He gathered them up from the fragmentary mosaic of the original narrative and gave them a plot for us to follow (because we’ve become accustomed to plots).  Recognizing that we are invested in these characters, he was aware that we want them to be rewarded in ways we understand.  Therefore, his Alice grows up to be an independent, free-thinking international business tycoon despite the fact her story is set well before the era of female suffrage.  In this way, “our” Alice is even better than the original, because she validates our contemporary values.  Only the crustiest of literary purists could resist a “girl power” Alice.

Where Burton failed in his reboot of Dark Shadows was in his implicit insistence that the source material is somehow irrelevant.  The TV series ended in 1971.  Burton’s movie is set in 1972.  The year 1972 is declared over and over in the script, and not just for the sake of hammering home Barnabus’ two hundred year exile from the land of the living.   The repeated emphasis on the year 1972 serves as a declaration that the Dark Shadows we knew from the series is over, a closed book, now sitting on the shelf.  The year is emphatically 1972– another Dark Shadows has begun.  Each repetition of the year is a warning shot: all bets are off, and nothing is sacred.  Number One Fans beware.  The crass, unfunny thing now calling itself Dark Shadows, is in essence Dark Shadows in name only.  It’s hard to imagine what audience it is hoping to satisfy.  I’m guessing it would have to be one that has yet to get its fill of the last three decades’ worth of seventies jokes? Or one populated by churls for whom blowjobs and underwear still somehow maintain some comedic cache beyond the laugh riot of junior high?  Of the thirty or so people watching the movie with me, there seemed to be nobody that fit that description in attendance.  Judging from their ages (mid-forties and older), these were Number One Fans of the original series.  The only laughter I heard was from a man seated at the back, and it occurred when Barnabus was re-interred with a red shred of lingerie on his face.  The laugh was mirthless.  It was a forceful, incredulous laugh that seemed almost accusatory.  It seemed to say “what the hell else can they get wrong ?”

In short, we were all in Misery.  As Annie Wilkes would have it, a commercial reboot is about giving people what they want, and nobody wants Dark Shadows.

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7 Responses to “The Misery of Dark Shadows”

  1. Evan Oakley Says:

    From this analysis, it’s clear that Burton didn’t have any love or inherent affinity for the original, and in consequence, could not reanimate the dead. Burton, Depp, Bonham-Carter . . . I wouldn’t get in their way, and may yet be surprised, but their make-up heavy macabre-zany schtick is wearing thin.

  2. Lesley Says:

    I saw the trailer and thought “huh, what? Why are they calling this “dark shadows”, it’s nothing like the original. It’s like calling a movie “dukes of hazard” and having it be about a dude who sells old cars. I’ve never even seen the original dark shadows, but I knew enough about it to know the movie was all wrong. On your recommendation, I feel I must watch the original now.
    Also, I found myself wanting to “Like” certain lines you wrote. Why can’t we do that!

  3. 10hdt Says:

    You really nailed this one, my sentiments exactly.

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