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.

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