I'm just back from seeing Dark Shadows, in my beloved Santry Omniplex. (I've seen two hundred and seventy one films in that cinema to date, not including multiple viewings of the same film. I know that because I record all the films I see on an Excel spreadsheet. How nerdy is that?)
I had never even heard of the American TV series on which it was based. (Which pleased me-- I'm always happy when I find myself untouched by pop culture in some way.) The posters and bus advertisements didn't look very promising, especially since I've heard that films are only advertised on the sides of buses as a desperate measure, when they are expected to tank.
But I went anyway, because I was so intrigued to find out about the TV series. A Gothic horror soap? Whoever heard of that? So, despite the fact that I think the undead are becoming tedious beyond words and that there should be a moratorium on vampire movies for the next ten years (and a moratorium on superhero movies for the next twenty), I decided to go. After all, I wasn't going to swell the coffers of Avengers Assemble or American Pie.
My curiosity was rewarded. Dark Shadows is one of the oddest and most interesting films I've seen in a long time. And, funnily enough, it is odd not because it is quirky but precisely because it is not all that quirky. Considering the battiness of the premise, it's remarkable how straight this movie is played, how tightly the comedic elements are reined in. Remarkable, and refreshing.
The plot is something of a mix between Interview with the Vampire and Crocodile Dundee. Barnabas Collins is the scion of wealthy eighteenth-century Maine family, owners of a lucrative fishing business. Something of a playboy, he makes the mistake of jilting a domestic servant who also happens to be a witch. She enchants his true love into wandering over a cliff, turns Barnabas into a vampire, and then for good measure has him buried alive. When he is finally released from his internment, it is 1972 and the Collins family has hit on hard times, while the witch who beat up on Barnabas has pretty much taken over the area's fishing trade. And she is still harbouring a lust-hate relationship for Barnabas.
Of course, the film provides plenty of scope for fish-out-of-water humour, and it's genuinely funny, as fish-out-of-water humour usually is. Barnabas wonders aloud why one of his female relatives is still unmarried at fifteen, and recommends her to put her good "birthing hips" to use. He reads Love Story by Eric Segal and hangs out with a bunch of hippies. He even invites Alice Cooper to perform at his mansion, (and reflects that she is the ugliest woman he's ever seen).
Inevitably, too, the seventies is mined for its soundtrack and its fashions, and the groovy atmosphere does add an extra relish to the movie. Hey, I like the seventies. I come from there.
There is an awful lot happening in this film. It seems like it has about ten central characters and half a dozen plots, in almost as many genres. Which sounds like a recipe for chaos, but-- quite surprisingly-- Dark Shadows gets away with it.
Visually it is as lip-smacking as you would hope, with atmospheric Gothic sets, exciting camera angles, and magical special effects.
Mixing comedy and horror is a tricky business. The comedy tends to negate the horror. Most of the time it doesn't work and it's a horrible mess. But now and again, a film like Scream or Creepshow will come along and pull off this bravura feat. Dark Shadows doesn't rank with either of those, but it still enters the far-from-crowded ranks of decent comedy-horrors.
The worst fault of the film is that it pushes things just a little too far, trying our patience in the last fifteen minutes or so, as the spectacle becomes more and more spectacular. But I suppose it does have soap opera DNA, and could hardly avoid excess.
As usual, these days, the film was awarded a completely inappropriate certificate. Rated for twelve years or above, it contained very racy humour, and some extremely erotic imagery. Suicide is presented in a morally neutral manner.
But on the whole, a very pleasant surprise, and very much recommended if you are at all a horror aficionado.