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"Dark Shadows" and the need for a moral center.

A few nights ago, I went with my sister to see the latest Tim Burton/Johnny Depp film, Dark Shadows.  I am completely unfamiliar with the television show which inspired the movie, but as a film it was watchable enough.  However, there was one serious drawback which prevented it from being a movie in which I could truly feel engaged: the main character was totally devoid of a moral center.

The word "moral" is a problematic one to use in an entertainment critique, because virtually every reader will have his or her own personal meaning attached to it.  For the purposes of this post, when I say moral, I am not restricting the paradigm to a set of religious precepts, i.e., "that's immoral," I am talking more about the code of ethics ascribed to by the characters within the film.

Screenplays are constructed out of several ubiquitous elements: story, scenes, characters, themes, etcetera.  Characters are established and they play out a story.  The nuances of a story move from scene to scene along the plot.  The quality of a screenplay is judged on how effectively its story and the concomitant plot provide motivation for the characters to behave the way they do.  Well-written screenplays are built on foundational themes which the plot deals with in a meaningful way.  The completed story is the cumulative result of characters' actions and interactions as dictated by the plot.

For a story to "work," the characters need a personal journey within the broader scope of the story: an arc.  This could be a villain's transformation into a hero (or vice versa), or a character's discovery of just who murdered his parents in the dark alley all those years ago.  It is much easier to sympathize with principle characters when the audience makes discoveries about the world of the film with them.  That allows for sympathy (and on a subliminal level, trust) to be established between the audience and the protagonist.

Naturally, the plot is greatly strengthened when characters' actions make sense.  When a character's actions contradict the arc established for them in the eyes of the audience, it creates aggravating dissonance.  Some screenplays can introduce dissonance and resolve it by the time the credits roll, using it to effectively maintain audience interest.  This is not the case with Dark Shadows.

The story's setup is straightforward.  The principal character of this film is Barnabas Collins.  He is played by Johnny Depp with all of the familiar quirks and tics which characterize a Depp performance under Tim Burton's direction.  Barnabas has a tryst with a maid named Angelique (Eva Green), but falls in "true love" with Josette Du Pres (Bella Heathcote).  Sadly for Barnabas, Angelique moonlights as a witch, and through her dark arts she kills both Josette and Barnabas's parents, and condemns Barnabas to eternal damnation as a vampire.  Two hundred years later, ("197, to be exact"), Barnabas is unearthed and released from his chain-wrapped coffin by a construction crew.  He sucks them all dry of sangre, seeks out his descendants, resurrects the family business and adjusts to life in the oh-so-groovy 1970s.  As the film's antagonist, Angelique also preserved herself until the present day, keeping her lipstick fresh and her smile inviting should Barnabas return.

These plot points set up Dark Shadows to revolve around themes which are easily digestible for anyone who has seen one or more vampire films.  Dark Shadows references lost love, enduring love, conflicted love and the double-edged sword of immortality.  The "fish out of water" concept is thrown in for comedic relief as the Georgian Barnabas confronts modern elements from hippies to a lava lamp.  But once the introductions and fun moments have been exhausted, the screenplay is lacking in several critical areas.

The largest flaw in the screenplay is in the characterization of Barnabas himself.  Barnabas is the protagonist; the audience needs to sympathize with him and are given cues to do so by several of his character traits.  He is lovelorn and spiritually damned, but he avoids self-pity and is committed to helping his family.  After revitalizing the family business, he even manages to score Alice Cooper as the entertainment for a town-wide soiree.  His characterization as a sympathetic figure is almost compelling, except for one thing.

Barnabas is an amoral sociopath.

While Barnabas' relationship to his family is noble and his relationship to the modern world humorous, his charisma ends there.  Whether out of an unclear character study on the part of the screenwriter or a misguided subservience to more prevalent vampire lore, Barnabas is never fully developed into a quirky Burton protagonist.  Too often, his persona collapses into yet another interpretation of Dracula (or even Count Orlok).  In just the events shown onscreen, Barnabas commits at least two acts of mass murder, murders a principle character and dumps the body in the ocean, and uninhibitedly hypnotizes friend and foe alike to get what he wants.

Dark Shadows pays homage to a long-standing theme of all vampire films and literature, which is the vampire's attempt to reclaim a lost lover by winning the heart of their modern reincarnation.  In this case, Josette is reincarnated as the modern-day Victoria Winters, the Collins' family governess.  But before pursuing her, his self-proclaimed "true love," Barnabas soullessly and senseless engages in another night of loveless passion with Angelique.  Their lovemaking scene is a masterpiece of wire-fu stuntwork, but is simply at odds with literally everything else which is said about the love triangle between Barnabas, Angelique and Victoria/Josette.  A scene of this nature, thus unmotivated, cheapens all of Barnabas's further expressions of love toward Victoria, including the film's final scene.

To complete his lack of ethics, Barnabas speaks constantly of vampirism as a curse, even going so far as to attempt a cure.  But this is undermined by his total lack of remorse for any and all of his conscienceless actions.  Most of the time, no matter what he might say, he seems to take great pleasure in the abilities and mores germane to vampires.

For a film to work, the audience needs to care about the protagonist.  But for an audience to care, they need to understand.  Barnabas cannot be understood, because his actions condemn his dialog to being a string of non sequiturs.

Efforts to humanize Barnabas through comedic foibles and bursts of filial devotion are undercut by the fact that, at his core, Barnabas is a very selfish individual with no true convictions.  If one takes into account that he dabbled in the occult himself before being made a vampire, there is little or no difference between Barnabas and Angelique, only in their respective goals.

When too many similarities exist between the protagonist and antagonist in a story, a writer or director has to dispel them for clarity or explore them for drama.  Neither happens in Dark Shadows.  In the end, the audience is left with a mildly entertaining film containing scattered moments of comedic dexterity and comfortable retreads of familiar Tim Burton motifs.  But the story fails on a structural level.

Instead of laughing and crying along with a compelling and quirky character, like Barnabas Collins could have and should have been, I found myself watching his numerous illogical decisions with impassive detachment.

Film is a visual medium, and the old adage "actions speak louder than words" is never more true than in cinema.

External Links:

Writing with Hitchcock: Plot vs. Story in Alfred Hitchcock'sVertigo - YouTube

Dracula (1931)

Nosferatu (1922)

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)