Friday, July 31, 2015

DARK SHADOWS 2012: It actually could have been worse


There's a little more subtlety on display in the shooting script for DARK SHADOWS. Which isn't saying much, considering the blunt-force trauma that was the final cut of Tim Burton's 2012 "adaption" of the ABC daytime drama. It's a film that is constantly at odds with itself, never finding time to settle on a tone, theme or even a central character. Yeah, you could reasonably argue that these problems were present in the original television series, but Burton simply failed to make turn these flaws into strengths.

Since then, the film's principles have dealt with the negative response in some ... interesting ways. Burton has shrugged off its relative failure by blaming its lack of appeal on the original television series. Johnny Depp will happily extend a middle finger to the film's haters, while the movie’s original screenwriter, John August, has politely disowned it. (Trivia: these  guys are also the world's easiest choices for FUCK/MARRY/KILL.)

August has reason to be quiet. The draft dated Nov. 20, 2010, has his name at the top of the script's cover, but it represents a massive overhaul by Seth Grahame-Smith at the request of Warner Bros. It was decided late in development that DARK SHADOWS would need to distinguish itself from the likes of TWILIGHT, TRUE BLOOD and THE VAMPIRES DIARIES by taking a comedic approach. (Note: August confirmed via Twitter last night that this draft of the script does not represent his work.)

August's original draft of DARK SHADOWS continues to elude me, but a copy of Grahame-Smith's "revision" recently landed on my desk. It's a fascinating read and represents a story that goes to some dark places that the movie otherwise avoids. But it also fails to understand its source material, a genetic flaw that continued to bloom as DARK SHADOWS went into production.

Still, this draft gets a few things right. It also gets so, so many things wrong. So let’s take a look at some of the ways this draft differs from the finished product.

"My Name is Victoria Winters"
As in the film, the script begins with a flashback to 1752. The Collins family is leaving Liverpool, fleeing an unidentified "curse." These problems follow them to the New World, taking the shape of ghosts, witches and even a werewolf ... all backed by a voice over from Victoria Winters. This narration was almost entirely re-written for the film and the dialogue given to Johnny Depp. I can only speculate as to the reasons why this change was made, but anyone who’s seen the deleted scenes included on the home video release already knows that Victoria was marginalized during the film’s editing. I don’t know if this was because of concerns over Heathcote’s performance or just an effort to push Depp further toward the front of the story.

There are a few other minor changes, but the most glaring (and interesting!) omission was the absence of Angelique from the prologue. And there's a reason for this:

Angelique has been busy
There’s a little more to the character of Angelique Bouchard in this draft of the script, and all of those differences point to a lack of understanding by Grahame-Smith of the definitions of “story,” “character” and “plot.” Angelique has always been evil, it’s revealed, and her actions have nothing to do with Barnabas Collins, rejection or anything else.

As in the final film (and the original television series), Angelique dooms Barnabas after she’s spurned, cursing him and Josette to their doom. BUT: we learn later in the film's script that Angelique has been plaguing the Collins family for many, many years. She’s even the reason the family fled England.

Why? Who the fuck knows.

Not long before Barnabas decapitates her during the script's climax (more on that later), she confesses to sleeping with Barnabas’s father, breeding the werewolf that bit Carolyn when she was an infant, casting a spell on the weather to guide the Collins family from Liverpool to the land that would become Collinsport, killing Roger's wife, killing Barnabas' parents, etc. It reads like a less-funny version of Nick Cave's "The Curse of Millhaven" and opens up trunk full of plot holes. For an almost-omnipotent being, Angelique is less a pestilence than a nuisance.

Speaking of decapitations…

The movie was intended to be Rated R. Maybe.
You’ve got a better chance of understanding the Kabbalah than you do the methods used by the MPAA to determine film ratings. A powerful enough director can essentially demand any rating they want, while others require a measure of strategy to make sure their work reaches the widest possible audience.

There’s enough violence, profanity and nudity in this draft of DARK SHADOWS to suggest the studio was willing to accept an R rating. But there’s also an ambiguity to the script that makes me think the studio wasn’t fully sold on the idea. As I mentioned before, Angelique is decapitated in the film’s climax when Barnabas rips a silver chain from her neck. ATTACK OF THE CLONES is evidence, though, that you can decapitate half the film’s cast and still skate with a PG rating.

Still, that leaves a nude scene (when Angelique flashes Barnabas in the script, there’s a lot more skin), graphic violence and a special appearance by the word “fuck.”

Politics is the new witchcraft
There’s a not-that-interesting subplot in script involving Collinsport Town Council. Unnamed and undistinguished, these roles have quite a bit of dialogue, though the script never takes the time to describe them.

During one of their many pointless confrontations, Angelique tells Barnabas that witchcraft is less useful than it once was, saying “Politics is the new witchcraft.” She tries to poison the council against the Collins family and their renewed business interests, eventually turning to magic to win their support. These characters make up the “mob” that storms Collinwood in the final act, forcing the family to pull their punches in the struggle.

The faceless nature of the council members makes me think they were meant as conveyance for cameos by cast members from the original television show.

The Cooper Woman
Believe it or not, Alice Cooper was always intended to appear in DARK SHADOWS. The film’s more elaborate set pieces are essentially blank in the script (the bizarro sex scene between Barnabas and Angelique, for example, happens between edits) but Cooper’s presence is actually woven into many of the film’s “jokes.” It’s an odd choice, given that Cooper might not have been available to participate when the film began production the following year. Had he been busy, I have a feeling we’d have had to endure jokes about Iggy Pop’s name, instead.

The script goes so far as picking out a song for the former Vincent Furnier to sing: “Under My Wheels,” from the 1971 album KILLER. Cooper would go on to perform the more appropriate “Ballad of Dwight Frye” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy” in the actual movie. Curiously, the latter wouldn’t be released until 1973 … a year after the movie takes place. Shrugs.

Several of Grahame-Smith’s proposed musical cues managed to find their way into the final film, though. It’s worth mentioning that the Moody Blues’ “Knights in White Satin” (which plays over the opening credits) was intended to be “The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel. This is a kind of Sophie’s Choice of musical cues, in my opinion.

Here’s a list of the songs suggested for use in the screenplay:

You have to have  huge balls to think you can get away with ever using "Blue Velvet" in a movie again. And if you think jokes about "balls" are funny, then you're in luck ...

DARK SHADOWS was supposed to be a comedy
In the months leading up to the release of the film’s first trailer, Tim Burton had pretty much surrendered any pretense that he ever had control of the film. Left with nothing more than a vague (if gorgeously constructed) riff on AUSTIN POWERS, he decided, instead, to promote the movie he wanted to make. He's an example of his one-man marketing campaign:
“It’s a funny film for me, because I never considered it a comedy. I was always trying to capture the weird vibe of ’Dark Shadows,’ which is a weird thing to try to capture. It was a weird daytime soap opera.”
Here’s the thing: Barnabas Collins is pretty much a joke factory in the screenplay. He rarely speaks a word that's not intended to remind the audience that he’s a clueless dimwit confounded by waffles, television, popular music and pretty much everything else he comes into contact with in 1972. It wouldn’t be so excruciating if a.) these jokes didn’t fall flat, and b.) he ever had anything else to say for himself. As a character, his goals are, shall we say, “modest.” The film pays lip service to finding a cure for his murderous disposition, but that idea goes by the wayside almost immediately. He doesn't want anything more in life than to bump uglies with Victoria, which brings me to my next point ...

Barnabas Collins was always an asshole
There’s a telling bit of dialogue during the film’s prologue, one that’s repeated (as with everything else that passes here for “theme”) constantly throughout the script. As Barnabas is giving Angelique the cold shoulder, he tells her that he believes himself to be better than her.

There are a few other glimpses of Barnabas’ bad behavior during the prologue, all of which presents him as lazy and shallow. We get an idea that he’s spent his youth nailing anything in a skirt before deciding to settle down with Josette (a relationship that lasts exactly one script page). The “I’m Better Than You” idea is bandied about quite often, almost always by Angelique, whose entire character is fully defined by the flaws of her love interest.

But none of this amounts to anything beyond the trading of a few verbal barbs. In fact, nothing happens in the script to humble Barnabas Collins, which is probably why it was so easy to "search" and "delete" these sections from the screenplay.

Speaking of getting deleted ...

RIP Victoria Winters
During the script’s climax, Barnabas races to Widows Hill in hopes of stopping Victoria (still under Angelique’s spell) from leaping to her death. Just as he arrives, she leaps … and dies.


Thinking I’d overlooked something, I read this section of the script several times before realizing that Victoria Winters does indeed die in this draft. Barnabas’ vampire curse was lifted with Angelique’s demise, leaving him human ... and powerless to change the course of events. Smash cut to the corpse of Julia Hoffman at the bottom of the ocean, her eyes opening with the promise that a sequel is in the works.

It’s a bold choice to kill off Victoria, but also an empty one. I admire the script’s willingness to juggle jokes about SCOOBY DOO with a nihilistic ’70s-style ending, but none of it adds up to anything. Grahame-Smith doesn’t know the difference between plot, character and theme, which is why these concepts are used interchangeably throughout. Having characters constantly talk about a theme is not a proper substitute for either “character” or “theme.” The same can be said for the story’s misuse of “plot” and “story,” which Grahame-Smith seems to think mean the same thing. The characters in the script just wander from scene to scene, waiting for the next set piece to happen.

While there are a few neat things about this draft of the script, I’d say that Burton’s dedication to style over substance was actually the movie’s only source of charm. Like Grahame-Smith, Burton is not much of a storyteller, but he has a keen eye for production design. The screenplay was DOA, but Burton still managed to produce some tasty eye candy from the project.

Which, ultimately, means that DARK SHADOWS is the same kind of plastic “Me Generation” experience that its supposed to be lampooning.

Wallace McBride is the editor of THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY.

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