American Gothic As Irony
You sometimes hear Australian intellectuals say that Americans don’t get irony. I don’t see how that is even possible given that they speak English and there is cause for much irony in the English language alone. What I think they really mean is that Americans are not into rhetorically couched irony the way the English – and by colonial extension – Australian and New Zealanders like to practice. There is certainly plenty of irony in ‘Dark Shadows’ and it is the more delicious for it.
The problematic in American Gothic as a sub-genre is that the Americas were not as we know it in the Gothic era, and so welding on the narrative traditions of Gothic story telling is that there is always going to be an underlying tension between the consumerist modern world and the Dark-aged murmur of an echo from Europe’s deep history. New England with its Puritan settlement and witch trials and generally stuffy cultural sensibility is ripe for the ironic treatment.
I would venture to say that it would be next to impossible to mount a Gothic horror narrative in Australia without irony and still make it a good movie; but that’s another discussion for another day. Today, we have ‘Dar Shadows’.
What’s Good About It
Gothic is hard for me to like. All that darkness and blood and gloom and white shirts wit fluffy bits just leaves me un-enthused. It’s not a genre I go looking for and I certainly never looked forward to a vampire or werewolf movie except the one time I was a kid and tuned into some BBC adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Still, there are times when I don’t mind the mannered style and narrative conventions. The nice thing is that this film turns the massive stodginess of Gothic into a laughable curio.
Tim Burton’s oeuvre is bursting at the seams with Gothic style and motifs, and sometimes they work when the irony is right – like in Ed Wood – but sometimes they flop miserably in the absence of ironic distance. Of his films, this might have more ironic distance than some of his other work.
Eva Green as Angie Bay is the eye-opener in this film. She is at once, voluptuous, sensual, insane and frightening. She is at ease with both the melodrama and the comedic siting side by side. by contrast, I’m sure Johnny Depp really wanted to play Barnabas Collins, but there’s something not quite right with his performance. it’s a lot harder to forget we’re watching Johnny Depp yet again in a Tim Burton movie. There seems to be no line between the acting and the schtick and the bizarre surroundings.
What’s Bad About It
The climax is plain silly, even for this tongue in cheek film.
Tim Burton’s always an interesting director with strong visuals, but in this film, it just comes off as his usual schtick with no added dimensions. A such the film seems a little tired in style and undercooked in the thematic department.
It’s also trying to cram in as many of the subplot from the TV Series so there is something rushed about the story telling.
What’s Interesting About It
The film spends a good deal of time trying to come at much of the melodramatic story from the old TV series. There’s a whole lot of exposition going on seemingly at every turn, but it doesn’t get too out of control. It mostly hangs on the Back story of Barnabas Collins and Ange, and what really keeps the intrigue of the backstory alive is Eva Green’s manic performance as Ange.
One wonders why we keep on rotting out these story tropes – witchcraft in New England, vampires, werewolves, ghosts and crypts. Gothic as a style as one thing, but the narrative constraints of Gothic one would imagine would get tired. And yet here we are with yet another film, putting yet another spin on these tropes. Still, it’s interesting to ponder what they are being thrown at.
1972, A Gothic Tale For You
The most joyous gag about the film is that instead of waking up today, Barnabas’ far future is 1972, a good deal of history ago for us today; for 1972 comes replete with a sense of tired Americana, like the afterglow – or hangover if you like – from the swinging sixties, and a sense of waiting for the denouement of the Vietnam War. The cars, the clothes, the music, all work in wonderful sympathy to undermine the Gothic Horror until of course Barnabas simply has to kill people and suck their blood.
Still, the choice of 1972 proves to be quite interesting, as it offers up a mirror to us in unexpected ways. For instance, we in 2012 are awaiting the draw down of troops from Afghanistan, and that gives us an emotional parallel to the weary grim view of the world, where something is out there sucking out the life blood from our society. That something is called war.
1972 is of course merely two years into the “Big Now”, which began at the inflection point when there became more people living than there had ever lived, which was 1970. It is the beginning of the process where age old customs, certainty, social stigmas all began unraveling – and in doing so exposed us to the metaphorical monsters. At least one reading is that the Big Now allows all the freaks to come out and be normal. After all, imagine being buried alive in 1972 and being awoken today. It might just be as big a gap as being buried alive between 1770 and 1972.
Of course one of the institutions that completely broke down in the 1970s was marriage. Divorce, became mundane and created a whole generation – Generation X – of people who grew up with the forced, yet keen, understanding that love and relationship and the word forever do not mix as well as the old understanding might have presented them. Love is, fallible and ephemeral to Generation X.
And so we are given a very strange re-envisioning of an ‘eternal’ love. Ange’s love for Barnabas in this film proves to be a great mystery. She loves him so much, she makes him into a vampire, so that he can be the undead and exist forever; and while he exists forever, Ange feels there is hope that he may love her (in spite of the fact that she turned him into a vampire). It’s hard to argue that this is eternal love, but it actually presents it self as an odd thesis about the fallibility of love.
Equally, Barnabas banishes David’s father Roger Collins from the family. Considering many American films have an impulse to forge families, Barnabas Collins is willing to re-engineer his descendants’ family. It seems morally righteous, but it’s also coming from a vampire who sucks the blood of unsuspecting hippies. The moral authority is undercut pretty hard by Barnabas’ own actions.
The tenor of what love is, within this text is actually a lot more strained; and by strained I mean restrictive and restricted by conventions of older horror texts where the monster has a secret love and yet it cannot come to be. It’s a well-worn trope that got trotted out for ‘The Mummy’ for instance, and it seems to run in every story about the monster like Frankenstein or Dracula. In this context, desire itself becomes this very inflexible emotional problem because there simply is no cure for the broken heart in these stories.
Melodrama is a hard sell at times because the characters are set pieces. A vampire is entirely ascribed by what a vampire is and does, and so it has a way of limiting the options for the character. Similarly, having characters such as witches, werewolves and ghosts has a way of making the story inflexible at points where human – or more precisely more volitional – characters would exercise options.
So the tragedy that befalls Barnabas at the beginning in the long exposition is in many ways a ruse to set the stage for the melodrama to follow, but once the character is set as a vampire, there’s a lot less for there to happen. The film loses quite a bit of narrative momentum when it dwells on Barnabas being a vampire. The story picks up steam when Barnabas is forced to make choices.
Speaking of Choices
Speaking of choices, apparently this is one of those films where Johnny Depp really wanted t play Barnabas Collins and that’s how it got made. it’s interesting that the other film he rely wanted to make was ‘The Rum Diary’. Between the two films, it might be possible to tease something out that relates to Johnny Depp’s aesthetic. Surprisingly, these two films are miles apart in their concerns, but now that I consider it, it seems apparent that both films centre around the schtick of the main characters.
A Quick Note About Anachronism Jokes
I was expecting a few more of these gags, but they weren’t really plentiful. I guess poking fun at 1972 is hardly the stuff of comedic ideals. Still, the film sets up a nice opportunity with the double anachronism of us looking back at 1972 as Barnabas comes into 1972 from a deeper past. The gag about television and the people inside was nowhere near as funny as the gags involving Alice Cooper who does make an appearance as himself.
The best time travel anachronism jokes were in the ‘Back to the Future’ trilogy that exhausted the genre in the 1980s (as well as predicting the 1997 World Series), while ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’ attempted to recreate that magic by going back to the 1980s, so it seems there were other reasons in not coming into a date later than say, 1985.