Monday, April 23, 2012

House of Dark Shadows (Curtis 1970)

Most anime fans are likely aware of the practice of taking an anime television series and editing it down into a feature film to be released in theatres, such as Evangelion: Death and Rebirth (1997). The value of such films has often escaped me, given that they seem to be little more than ‘best of’ reels for a pre-existing work,  and are often such patch work jobs that the finished film makes little sense to viewers outside of the pre-existing fan base. 

House of Dark Shadows (1970) is not one of these cobbled together films, but it might as well be. The film is a full blown remake of significant storyline from the popular daytime soap Dark Shadows, which ran from 1966-1971, except shot on film on a higher budget than the soap opera ever had. Yet rather than rework the material to function in a new medium, the finished film appears to have been produced from a script which merely cobbles together random scenes from the series in a manner which is borderline incomprehensible.

First, a bit of context: the soap opera Dark Shadows follows the Collins family, the wealthy owners of the Collins’ estate, whose lives are filled with mystery, intrigue, and, in a mark distinction from other soap operas, the supernatural, with the family having to deal with ghosts, werewolves and vampires. Arguably the most famous storyline of the program - and the one which serves as the basis for this film - is the introductory tale of Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid), an ancestor to the modern Collins family who years earlier was cursed to become a vampire. Awoken in 1970, Barnabas discovers a local resident Maggie (Kathryn Leigh Scott), who resembles his lost love Josette, and proceeds to seduce/hypnotise Maggie into believing that she really is a reincarnation of his lost love. A hit with fans upon his first appearance, Barnabas quickly moved from short term guest star villain to becoming the series anti-hero protagonist, a shift reflected in each revival of the program since, including the upcoming Tim Burton film. 

The side effect of making Barnabas a regular character though was that the original ending for the initial storyline was abandoned. House of Dark Shadows is an attempt to retell the initial Barnabas story with an ending closer to the one originally planned for the series. I can see the appeal the project would have for the producers of the series, both creative and financial: first, a film could provide an opportunity to tell an already popular story free of the constraints of the television series without impacting the story of the daily program; secondly, the film could also take advantage of the program’s built in audience, offering fans a chance to see an alternative take – and in an number of cases, alternative fates – for their favourite characters, without making this version the definitive telling and thus alienating them with radical changes to establish continuity.

However, the problem is that the finished film has no interest in appealing to anyone who is not already a Dark Shadows fan. Rather than focusing upon a few narrative strands, the film attempts to maintain as many of the ongoing plot lines as possible from the series without developing any of them into a cohesive whole. The film jumps from scene to scene, plot point to plot point, and heaven help you if you have no familiarity with the program prior to watching the film. The opening scenes of the film clearly communicate that the film has no interest in bringing a new audience in, as it begins with a group of characters looking for someone named David. Who is David? Who are the people looking for David? The film really bothers to introduce these characters, and the only reason I knew who any of them are is because a few days prior to viewing House of Dark Shadows I had watched the pilot of the 1991 revival series. This problem runs throughout the film, with plot points raised and abandoned in what feels like ten minute increments, making it hard to give a damn about what is happening on screen.

Of course, the problems with the film do not stop with regards to the film’s narrow focus on its core fan base, as there are just plain absurd elements in the film which should have been dropped, regardless of whether or not they were part of the television series. Roughly a third of a way into the film, a doctor announces that he believes one of Barnabas’ victims has become a vampire, and only a few scenes later, the entire police force is out hunting for this vampire with giant silver crosses (don’t even ask where they managed to get them from), a sequence which ends with the doctor staking the vampire while the police stand around and watch. Now, while the character who had become a vampire was legally dead, I have trouble believing that when a person believed to be dead is clearly seen to be up and walking about that the staking of said individual would be considered anything less than murder. And no, it does not make any more sense in the 1991 series either.

Of course, one would assume that even if the narrative of the film is incomprehensible, that the film might be well directed. Sadly, even here the film fails, as the modest budget of the film appears to have forced the filmmakers to rush through shooting. The film features frequent handheld camera work which is often unmotivated and unclear, awkwardly staged scenes, and performances which might have worked on the soap opera but come across as hilariously hammy on film.

The shame of it is that the film does feature many great elements which could have been refined into a good film. The late Jonathan Frid turns in a fine performance which manages to hold the film together at least enough to be watchable, and director Curtis occasionally manages to generate a creepy atmosphere and stage some effective scenes, such as when David encounters a loved one turned vampire for the first time. But in failing to streamline and rework the material for a new medium, any successes achieved by the filmmakers fail to save the film overall.

While I cannot honestly recommend House of Dark Shadows except to the most hard core of fans, for those interested, the film is currently available on Itunes and Amazon’s video streaming service, and will apparently be made available on DVD later this year to cash in on the interest and curiosity which will theoretically be generated by Tim Burton’s upcoming film adaptation. However, should such interest arrive, I would recommend fans checking out the 1991 revival series first before diving into the long running original, and certainly before checking out House of Dark Shadows.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Tall Guy (Smith 1989)

It is kind of amazing how much charm can play a role in my like or dislike of a film. For example, take the film The Tall Guy, a 1989 film directed by Mel Smith (Bean), written by the great Richard Curtis (the writer and director of one of my perennial Christmas time favourites, Love, Actually): for the most part, the film is a whimsical romantic comedy and lampooning of the world of British stage acting. Yet late in the film, a character makes a rather serious transgression whose ramifications go unexplored. Worse, the film then asks audiences to forgive this transgression, and to buy that another would be willing to forgive when no real penance has been paid.

And yet forgive I do. I forgive not just the character of his transgressions, but the film as a whole for its flaws; I forgive the filmmakers for their missteps. And I forgive because, when all is said and done, the finished film is so damn charming that I want to ignore the flaws and the nagging moral questions my critical self brings to the film. I want to root for these characters, to get the “happy” ending even when the film doesn’t quite earn it.

The story of The Tall Guy is that of Dexter King (Jeff Goldblum), an American actor living in London who for six years has held the less than glamorous position of being the straight man to Ron Anderson (Rowan Atkinson) in a successful comedy stage show. Ignored by audiences and detested by the arrogant Anderson, Dexter seems to be stuck in a runt until a visit to the doctor for his hay fever leads him into the path of Kate (Emma Thompson), a nurse whom he becomes smitten. While the initial stages of their relationship result in Dexter’s firing by Anderson, Dexter soon bounces back when he lands the lead role in a musical stage adaptation of The Elephant Man. Of course, being a romantic comedy, complications arise from Dexter’s success, resulting in Dexter having to make a last ditch effort to try and save his relationship with Kate.

If the plot sounds like standard romantic comedy fare, it is. Yet what saves the film and gives it much of its charm is the way in which it captures a particular slice of London life at a specific time. Yes, the film is filled with flights of fancy and broad comedy, yet between Curtis’s script and Smith’s direction, the film feels like it has a level of emotional and situational authenticity lacking in other romantic comedy efforts, particularly with regards to the film’s satirical jabs at the worlds of musical theatre and stage comedy. The crowning achievement of the film is the sequence in which viewers are presented “highlights” from the musical Elephant, though sadly in the twenty-three years since The Tall Guy’s release, the concept of a musical based on The Elephant Man has gone from being a satirical gag to probably a more reasonable idea than what actually has been turned into a stage musical in recent years (Legally Blonde and Spider-Man, anybody?).

While the satire of the film is perhaps its strongest element, it is the chemistry of the leads which keeps the film together even when it starts to become muddled. While the pairing of Goldblum and Thompson is not an obvious one, the choice turns out to be a rather inspired, as both manage to ground their rather eccentric characters in a way which allows viewers (well, at least this viewer) to accept the more fantastical scenes of the film, including a rather absurd sex scene. Goldblum also has an excellent comic rapport with Atkinson, the latter who is given a delightfully dick-ish character to play in Anderson.

Yet for all of the film’s positive points, the second half of the film in which the relationship of Dexter and Kate fractures does not quite work. (NOTE: SOME SPOILERS AHEAD) The drama of the third act hinges upon an issue of infidelity, and while the subject is one worth exploring in film romances, it feels tacked on in this film, seemingly coming out of nowhere and only serving to break up the central relationship because, well, that’s what most romantic comedies do. At no point does the film make much of an effort to explore the subject, and the resolution to this part of the story is far too clean, undermining whatever little dramatic weight the plot point had to start with.

But darn it, there is still that issue of just how charming the film is. Made on a modest budget, the film feels like a real homemade effort despite the presence of Hollywood star Goldblum, whose presence in the film is reportedly due to an actors’ strike in Hollywood. There is clearly such passion put forth on the part of the filmmakers that no matter how clunky the film gets as it goes on, it is hard not to stay engaged and root both for the film’s protagonists and for the filmmakers themselves.

The film is available on DVD from Echo Bridge Home Entertainment, who controls most of the Miramax film library at the moment. The DVD is a serviceable effort for a budget title, though the film deserves a better release, one which at least features the longer cut of the film released in the UK but was trimmed for some baffling reason for the North American market. Still, the film comes recommended, especially for fans of Curtis who wish to take a look at his earliest effort in the romantic comedy genre.