Thursday, May 31, 2012


Cursed to become a vampire by a jilted lover, nobleman Barnabas Collins is unearthed two centuries later (in 1972) to find the world almost completely changed. His beloved home, Collinwood Manor, remains barely standing, presided over by the remnants of his family. Barnabas moves to restore his family to its former glory, even as he is haunted by the spectre of at least one lost love...

I lamented previously about the foul taste left by the trailer for this, the latest Tim Burton/Johnny Depp collaboration. I couldn't understand how a film by two avowed fans of the original series could be as off-puttingly goofy as the trailer suggested it would be. Reviews of critics and reports from friends suggested that my fears were well-founded. And yet even weeks after the thing opened I remained curious about it, and figured I'd have to see it for myself. I went with my girlfriend, a woman who's picked up my DARK SHADOWS habit, who held out hope that there was something of substance within the film. I harbored my doubts even after the solid prologue, bracing myself for the film to go off the rails.

But it never did. The credits roll as Victoria Winters travels to Collinsport to take her new job as governess to Collinwood Manor (the event that opened the original series - indeed, it was a dream of this image that led Dan Curtis to conceive the show). The Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin" is an obvious choice to score this, but it works. The choices Burton (and writers John August and Seth Grahame-Smith) makes in introducing the Collins clan, from the still-proud elegance Michelle Pfeiffer brings to Elizabeth Collins Stoddard to young David Collins' startling resemblance to the young Damien Thorn, also work, demonstrating an understanding of what makes the characters compelling but necessarily going beyond simple rehash.

There is humor in the film, yes. And some if it is so gaudy that it seems to have been tacked on after the fact (and yes, I refer to the scenes that figure in the trailer). My girlfriend was convinced that these scenes were shot at studio insistence, and though one cannot ignore Burton's previous lapses into mood-breaking cutesiness (and there have been several), the gothic tone is so lovingly realized throughout the film that these scenes are hard to explain any other way. Especially alongside moments of sly humor that are realized more solidly, and are genuinely funny. One such moment finds Barnabas cursing a bright (and prominently framed) McDonald's sign. "Mephistopheles!" he hisses, a clever subversion of such direct product placement that showcases a wit absent in the film's goofier moments.

It is as compromised as Orson Welles' MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, which is not to say that it is as brilliant as that film remains. Some choices can not be laid down to studio interference. Eva Green holds all of the physical characteristics of Tim Burton's favorite leading ladies, but she doesn't bring to Angelique the knowingly freaky grace and eldritch power that would have made her a formidable villain (Burton's former muse Lisa Marie MUST have had the role at some point in their history). Still other characters are clumsily misplaced - Jonny Lee Miller's Roger Collins is too one-dimensional to ever be effective and is quickly written out; Victoria's backstory is rushed through; and there are a couple of character 360s that exist solely to provide the final conflict some oomph.

But even through all of these setbacks, these mistakes, these interferences, there is plenty to latch onto. Johnny Depp's haunted, irreverent grace. More crucially, the dedication of Barnabas to his family, which here, as always, keeps him from being the monster he fundamentally is (fan confession: the first extended scene between Barnabas and Elizabeth was exactly what I wanted/needed from this movie, and Depp and Pfeiffer just nail it). Pfeiffer's wounded strength, and the way Burton films her on Collinwood's main staircase. The lone tree on Widow's Hill, and the watery tragedy beneath. The curious, but keenly felt, kinship between Barnabas and David. The gentle lapse of familial duty into unconditional love. These and many other moments are realized with reverence, and eagerly shared by Burton, Depp, and company. As challenging as it is to see through all of the haze and meddling, there is real love for the source material here. The suits signed off on it, but generous eyes and heart reveal that they didn't quite kill it. Collinwood remains. This fan cried. And the Collinses endure.

Sunday, May 13, 2012


An expedition crashlands on a distant, Earth-like planet. Existing within the planet's accelerated time stream, the survivors of the crash undergo physical and spiritual changes that lead to the creation of new socieites, worlds, and realms of thought. Meanwhile, filmmaker Andrzej Zulawski (creating this film from a trilogy of science fiction novels by his granduncle) has the film taken from him by the Polish government, who attempts to destroy the footage. Miraculously, the studio and the film's cast & crew intervene, saving most of the footage, and Zulawski resorts to stripped down means to complete the film taken out of his hands ten years prior, creating still more realms within the already sprawling and ambitious epic.
So many strands of cultural thought and activity seem to converge in this fantastic film - the film builds on both the physically gruelling theatre of Jerzy Grotowski and the shamanic cinematic visions of Alejandro Jodorowsky, and anticipates (among many, many other things) the "found footage stream" of horror film and the long-take apocalypse of Cuaron's CHILDREN OF MEN. The patchwork done to complete the narrative, contemporary traveling shots taken within Poland with Zulawski narrating the story in voiceover, is a completion strategy Welles would have admired. In the end, the film takes on its own magickal form of existence. I admit to losing the story line somewhere in the third hour, but consider seeing the face of God on screen as more than adequate compensation. Something inside me accelerated, even as the denizens of the film had their own existences expanded, distorted, destroyed. A couple of stories that had been stuck in my mind found resolution and continuation, but even these soon fell behind me as the movie propelled me toward more complex, deeper understandings. All of the strands that came before the film, and the streams coming from it, seem to form the lines of a pyramid, and you can follow any of them up to the apex. And from that point, where the lines coalesce into a single point, the visible becoming invisible, the invisible tangible, you can see so much more than a film.
Zulawski's film concludes with his camera running frantically through a crowded street, describing the film's final image of a riderless horse tearing down the surf of a beach. I could see that horse with crystalline clarity. And Zulawski finished describing the efforts to end and destroy his film, his camera finally came to rest on his own face, reflected within a pane of glass on the street. Zulawski caught his breath, picked up his camera, and resumed his trek. His movie lives.


Friend: So is CABIN IN THE WOODS good?
You: It's great!
Friend: So what happens in it?
You: I'm not going to spoil it, wouldn't dream of it. You should see it.
Friend: Just tell me what happens, I'm never going to see it.
You: Dude, if you're interested to know what happens, you really should just see it.
Friend: Seriously, I don't think I'm ever going to see it, you can go ahead and tell me.
You: Really, you should see it.
Friend: I'm not going to, all right? Just tell me what happens!


You: (reluctantly) Well, it's about...(gives a four or five sentence summary, including some of the crazy shit that goes down in the second half)
Friend: Oh. Wow. (slight pause) I kinda wish you hadn't told me about it.

Goodbuddy Jon Sung posits that THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is a movie that should not be spoiled, no matter how much time has elapsed, and your proprietor must wholeheartedly agree. The archetypal tale of teens at the mercy of a nameless horror in a murky forest (which is, itself, under control of a much larger entity) is a multi-varied, clever, often hilarious, and occasionally terrifying piece of meta-horror. Co-written by Joss Whedon (a creator whose work has inspired both love and frustration from me), CABIN happily sidesteps Whedon's lapses into cutesiness, delivering what he calls a "love hate letter" to contemporary film horror. As such, it is very much the act of criticism that Ebert suggests. Yet it never disappears inside itself, nor does it, even as it renders us complicit in its plot, deny us the visceral pleasures of filmgoing (as a bonus, it gives great roles and lines to a number of actors, including Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford). Though the prospect of a sequel is highly unlikely, I'm keen to see where film horror goes from here.