Dark Shadows and God Bless America Reviewed 

The latest from Tim Burton and Bobcat Goldthwait

Thursday, May 10 2012

A significant portion of Tim Burton's output over the past decade has been concerned with slipping the "Burton treatment" to susceptible texts: Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland — and now, Dark Shadows.

A supernaturally themed daily daytime soap, Dark Shadows aired on ABC from 1966 to 1971, ruling the after-school time slot. Its story revolved around the family life of vampire Barnabas Collins, a figure of purposeful aristocratic bearing and seductive decadence played by Jonathan Frid, who died just weeks before the premiere of Burton's film. Shot one-take live-to-tape, with all the attendant imperfections of blown lines, wobbling candelabras and uncooperative stage doors, the TV series can be reduced to camp, merely the sum of its shoddy elements — but it also provided a generation of young Americans a glamorously gloomy antidote to the mainstream televised entertainment of the day, personified by Love, American Style and the Carpenters.

Burton standby Johnny Depp fills the Barnabas role in this new film version, which begins with a prologue, narrated in a grave rumble by Depp, that reveals the origin of the Collins curse. Leaving Liverpool, a still-mortal Barnabas arrives with his parents in Colonial-era Maine, where they build a commercial empire and establish the family seat, Collinwood Mansion. As a young man, Barnabas is torn between profane and sacred loves — with lowly servant Angelique (Eva Green) and hypergamous fiancée Josette (Bella Heathcote), respectively — and winds up with neither, for the spurned Angelique practices black magic, hexing Josette to death and Barnabas to endless suffering as a vampire, imprisoned in a chained-up coffin and buried (eternally) alive.

click to enlarge Dark Shadows
  • Dark Shadows

Location Info

Related Stories

  • Our Water Obsession

    "Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water." - Chinatown Countless documentaries are released into theaters every year, the majority of which are info dumps that take the talking-head structure as a given. There's rarely much thought given to form, which is sometimes fine - not every...
  • The Best Acts at Coachella Weren't Even on the Bill

    Nate Jackson GZA destroying bros with his lyrics at the Heineken House Special guests at Coachella are commonplace at this point. It's just something you expect when you set foot on the Polo Fields. But on Saturday night things went to another level; it was a fantastic evening due to...
  • Paint-Out & Sculpt-Out

    @ The Autry
  • Becoming a Member of Lucent Dossier Is Not Easy

    Chris Victorio Jordan Wentz doing the splits, handling fire...just another day on the job. This year, Lucent Dossier celebrates its 10th anniversary at Coachella. Honestly, we couldn't imagine a festival season without them. For the uninitiated, this traveling tribe of dancers, aerialists, acrobats, clowns and carnival freaks are the heart...
  • Drugs and Bands Pairings 3

    Timothy Norris By Adam Lovinus Ever since sunshine acid saturated Woodstock back in 1969, music festivals and recreational pharmaceuticals have gone together. While we applaud those using Coachella as an opportunity to get sober, it's not for everyone, which is why below, we've recommended a fine list of musical acts and drugs...

The bulk of Dark Shadows takes place in 1972, after Barnabas has been accidentally exhumed. Dazzled by paved roads and McDonald's, Barnabas arrives at a half-ruined Collinwood to take his place at the head of what remains of his family — matriarch and distant cousin Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer); her son and useless heir, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller, channeling John Saxon); his teenage sister, Carolyn (Chloë Moretz); and Roger's troubled, motherless child, David (Gulliver McGrath), haunted by Mommy's ghost. To deal with David's issues, two additional members of the household have been acquired: psychiatrist Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) and governess Victoria, the spitting image of Barnabas's lost love (also played by Heathcote). A less welcome familiar face is the magnate who has ruined the Collins family's fame and fortune through the decades — none other than the eternal Angelique.

This is a platoon of a cast, few of whom have time to make much of an impression as, in less than two hours, Burton's Dark Shadows must distill the essence of a 1,225-episode story arc (recently released by MPI Home Video on 131 DVDs!). If the actors' shticks leave only faint impressions, the art direction by Burton stalwart Rick Heinrichs reliably stamps itself on the imagination, his Collinwood Mansion a masterpiece of ornamental fretwork, octopi chandeliers and hidden passageways.

More than its Gothic tropes, though, Burton's Dark Shadows is committed to fish-out-of-water material — culture-clash humor that rummages through the collective thrift-store memory of the 1970s. The film's best moment features a cameo-ing Alice Cooper, performing "The Ballad of Dwight Fry" in Collinwood's Great Hall, tying together Barnabas and Cooper as kindred icons of heroic, morose theatricality against square, "silent majority"–era America.

More frequently, this Dark Shadows relies on slow-pitch, wasn't-the-past-dumb humor: The 1970s are lampooned for macramé art and inane pothead conversation, Love Story and lava lamps and the Steve Miller Band. The 1770s are held to ridicule through Barnabas' florid language, Romantic agony and droit du seigneur chauvinism.

Significantly, the screenplay is by Seth Grahame-Smith, author of "mash-up" novels including Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, soon to be a major motion picture produced by Burton, with a novelty concept whose best-seller popularity proves that our creatively anemic present ain't none too smart, neither.

In the midst of all this is an unusually dandy bit of dress-up from Depp, weaving his elongated Nosferatu fingers through the air, recalling an exchange in 1994's Ed Wood. ("Bela, how do you do that?" "You must be double-jointed. And you must be Hungarian.") Wood is still by far Depp and Burton's best collaboration, exhibiting the balance of tone between kitsch parody and zealous fantasy that's missing in Dark Shadows, which is less a resurrection than a clumsy desecration.

The shadow of Alice Cooper also stretches across Bobcat Goldthwait's God Bless America, another new film about beautiful monsters preying on American peasantry. According to Tara Lynne Barr's Roxy, the philosophical half of this film's murdering duo, it was Cooper who "gave us rock that upset authority figures and made the outcast feel not so all alone."

The outcast in God Bless America is Frank (Joel Murray) — a divorced, 50ish, glumly alcoholic white-collar worker introduced on one of his sleepless nights, entertaining homicidal fantasies about the couple next door. "They're incapable of comprehending that their actions affect other people," he muses, before another night in front of the TV, staring at uncivil reality programs and energy-drink ads with the same glassy eyes that Travis Bickle once cast over American Bandstand.

In the next few days, Frank will lose his job, become completely estranged from his young daughter and be diagnosed with brain cancer. It's like a nihilistic parody of Akira Kurosawa's 1952 Ikiru, where a fatally ill, unloved middle-aged bureaucrat, played by Takashi Shimura, is forced to find meaning in what life he has left. Shimura's character exchanges a wasted life for selfless action, turning a cesspool into a public playground; Frank, however, decides to waste those responsible for the cesspool that America has become — starting with an ungrateful brat he sees on a program that's clearly based on MTV's My Super Sweet 16.

Frank, a veteran, is a crack shot and quickly gains an admiring groupie in Roxy, a high school classmate of his first victim, who tags along to spur Frank into a program of cleansing cross-country killing, targeting members of a Westboro Baptist Church–type group, a bullying right-wing TV host, Tea Partiers and even some nonpartisan assholes. (Lucky for Alice Cooper, they don't seem to recollect that the rocker voted for Bush.)

I cannot remember an American movie that has painted such a vulgar picture of the pop culture landscape since Idiocracy or Ghost World — the latter of which also, curiously, revolved around the mutually revitalizing relationship between a middle-aged male misanthrope and a teenage female version of same, though Frank is exceedingly careful to maintain decorum with the underage Bonnie to his Clyde. ("So we're platonic spree-killers?" she asks, disappointed.)

The brief filmography of choke-voiced stand-up and God Bless America writer-director Goldthwait boasts some real black comic accomplishments, including 1992's Shakes the Clown — a dirty-joke burlesque of the spiritual cost of life in the comedy industry — and 2009's World's Greatest Dad, with Robin Williams grappling over how to grieve the death of a son who hardly deserved grief.

What World's Greatest Dad found in the friction between emotional and intellectual instincts, and what God Bless America lacks, is conflict. Goldthwait's latest doesn't interrogate Frank's warped decency or his conviction that "some folks just need killing" and offers no significant reason to second-guess him at any time. The interplay between Murray and Barr is closely and carefully handled, but when the monotonous squib-popping subsides, the movie is often static and talky, lapsing into criticism-hedging qualifications and anti-everything speechifying ("Nobody talks about anything anymore, they just regurgitate everything they see on TV"). From the film's blinkered POV, there is no such thing as an "innocent bystander," and no perspective is available outside of the all-enveloping disgust of Frank, Roxy and their doting creator, who absolves their crimes while serving up paper targets and irreverent soundtrack cues.

Goldthwait must understand the irony of a protagonist condemning a society "where the weak are torn apart every week for our entertainment" and "nobody cares that they damage other people" in a movie that revels in the slaughter of the unarmed. And he must, understandably, have thought that any flinch might crack his film's deadpan. But what's less obvious is what this turkey shoot is meant to do, aside from providing a like-minded audience the vicarious cathartic thrill of watching a douchebag apocalypse — which Piranha 3-D did with more élan and no self-righteousness.

God Bless America adopts the scorched-earth moral certitude and guiltless body count of the "angry white male" Reagan-era action movie while turning the jingoistic politics inside out. It's such a carefully studied parody, you might think you're looking at the original.

DARK SHADOWS | Directed by TIM BURTON | Written by JOHN AUGUST and SETH GRAHAME-SMITH | Warner Bros. | Citywide

GOD BLESS AMERICA | Written and directed by BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT | Magnolia Pictures | Downtown Independent

Reach the writer at nick.pinkerton@gmail.com

Related Content

Related Locations

Now Showing

  1. Wed 16
  2. Thu 17
  3. Fri 18
  4. Sat 19
  5. Sun 20
  6. Mon 21
  7. Tue 22

    Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

    Sponsored by Fandor

Box Office

Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, concert and dining info & more!


  • Nicolas Cage's 10 Best Movie Roles
    As video-on-demand continues to become the preferred route of distribution for a certain kind of independent film, much is being made of Nicolas Cage's willingness to slum for a paycheck, with recent examples including already-forgotten, small-screen-friendly items like Seeking Justice, Trespass, Stolen, and The Frozen Ground. (His character names in these projects -- Will Gerard, Kyle Miller, Will Montgomery, and Jack Halcombe -- are as interchangeable as the titles of the films.) Aside from citing the obvious appeal of doing work for money (a defense Cage himself brought up in a recent interview with The Guardian), it's also possible to back Cage by acknowledging the consistency with which he's taken on "serious" roles over the years.

    David Gordon Green's Joe, which hits limited release this weekend (more details on that here), marks the latest instance of this trend, with Cage giving a reportedly subdued performance as an ex-con named Joe Ransom. In that spirit, we've put together a rundown of some of the actor's finest performances, all of which serve as proof that, though his over-the-top inclinations may make for a side-splitting YouTube compilation, Cage has amassed a career that few contemporary actors can equal. This list is hardly airtight in its exclusivity, so a few honorable mentions ought to go out to a pair of Cage's deliriously uneven auteur collaborations (David Lynch's Wild at Heart, Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes), 1983's Valley Girl, 1987's Moonstruck, and Alex Proyas's Knowing (a favorite of the late Roger Ebert).

    --Danny King
  • Ten Enduring Conspiracy Thrillers
    With the approaching release this week of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, many critics, including L.A. Weekly’s own Amy Nicholson, have noted the film’s similarities (starting with the obvious: Robert Redford) to the string of conspiracy thrillers that dominated American cinema during the 1970s. With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of ten of the most enduring entries in the genre -- most of them coming from the ‘70s, but with a few early-‘80s holdouts added in for good measure. This is by no means an exclusive list, and more recent films like Roger Donaldson’s No Way Out (1987), Jacques Rivette’s Secret Defense (1998), Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State (1998), Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana (2005), and Redford’s own The Company You Keep (2012) speak to how well the genre has sustained itself over time. Words by Danny King.
  • Behind the Scenes of Muppets Most Wanted
    "The endurance of the Muppets isn't just the result of the creative skills of Henson and collaborators like Frank Oz, or of smart business decisions, or of sheer dumb luck," writes this paper's film critic Stephanie Zacharek in her review of Muppets Most Wanted. "It's simply that the Muppets are just ever so slightly, or maybe even totally, mad. Man, woman, child: Who can resist them? Even TV-watching cats are drawn to their frisky hippety-hopping and flutey, gravely, squeaky, squawky voices." Go behind the scenes with the hippety-hopping Muppets with these images.

    Read our full Muppets Most Wanted movie review.

Now Trending