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Birthing Hips Sink Ships: Dark Shadows & Improbable Feminism…

I will concede that I am fonder of Dark Shadows than most. I’ve been disappointed with a lot of Tim Burton’s recent output, but something about his revival of the seventies soap opera worked strangely well. I’ll be the first to concede that it’s pretty esoteric. After all, like Casa de mi Padre, it’s effectively one single joke stretched across a film’s runtime. However, I couldn’t help but warm to it, at least because it seemed like Burton was enjoying himself a lot more than head been with films like Alice in Wonderland. There was something quite cheeky about it, from the way that it portrayed its central character as ridiculously unheroic through to the fact that it was perhaps the year’s most subversive feminist film.

Indeed, watching the film again this weekend, it struck me just how feminist the narrative actually was, despite the somewhat superficial distractions from that.

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The script is decidedly cheeky about this. During Victoria’s job interview, Elizabeth asks, “Do you think the sexes should be equal?” Victoria replies, “Heavens, no. Men would become quite unmanageable.” It’s a nice, sly gag that works well – but it works a lot better in the context of the movie – once we’ve been introduced to the cast of relatively proactive female characters and the somewhat shallow and reactive men of the cast.

Of course, you’d argue that the film is headlined by Johnny Depp. And, in that, you would be entirely correct. Barnabus Collins is the character who occupies most of the runtime, he’s the character with whom we spend the most time, and it seems like we’re really just watching his quest to revive his family’s good fortune. However, Barnabus is quite possibly the most inept male lead I’ve seen in quite some time.

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It’s harder to notice because the movie doesn’t necessarily draw attention to it – that much – but Barnabus is a pretty crappy family patriarch. For one thing, it’s the fact that he lets his libido do most of the thinking that gets him into this mess in the first place. He doesn’t love Angelique, but he’s willing to “beg” her to sleep with him. We’re not even sure what the chronology is in those opening scenes. Does he plan to marry Josette at that point, or does he meet her later?

Either way, his conduct is hardly ideal. He’s cursed, turned into a vampire and buried alive. Now, he’s able to survive almost 200 years without blood – suggesting that he doesn’t need human blood to live. However, on awakening, Barnabus causes all manner of trouble feeding his hunger. “Yes,” he confesses to Angelique, “I killed Dr Hoffman, and those workmen, as well as some very nice unshaven people. For every life I take, a part of my soul dies! But I kill, only because I am COMPELLED to.” While it’s undoubtedly true that he’s addicted to blood, we know that a famine won’t kill him.

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We hear a romanticised version of events from Elizabeth, ending with her urging her ancestor to “fight on!”, but there’s a sense that Elizabeth is really just massaging Barnabas’ ego. Really, Barnabas just spends most of the film wandering around, killing things and sleeping with Angelique at the worst possible moments. “That was a regrettable turn of events,” he concedes, even though it didn’t seem to stop him.

When he wants to save the family’s shipping business, he resorts to trying to buy the local fishermen. The eldest gentleman, played by a delightfully sinister Christopher Lee, refused to concede to Barnabas’ bribery. He argues that there is such a thing as “loyalty”, a rather noble sentiment. Offered a more substantial contract, the fisherman replies, “I am not interested. There’s a thing called “loyalty” in our work.” Barnabas responds by brainwashing the poor man.

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It is worth noting, at this point, that the men of Dark Shadows seem particularly susceptible to hypnosis. Barnabas can put male characters under his spell at ease. He converts the “miscreant” Willie almost immediately on his arrival. Doctor Hoffman is also able to hypnotise Barnabas himself rather easily, despite his protestations (“madam, I do not believe that remotely possi…”). In contrast, the only female characters hypnotised are Josette and Victoria, who are arguably the same character, and they are hypnotised by Angelique rather than Barnabas.

It’s also worth taking a look at the other male characters. Willie is a joke. He’s a drunkard who is completely ineffective. When Angelique crashes the family “happening”, he can only half-heartedly object that she wasn’t invited. When she buries Barnabas alive (again), Willie is asleep in the car. When she comes over to destroy the house, he makes a proud last stand with an axe… only to be easily brushed aside.

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Similarly, Roger Collins – Barnabas’ only adult male heir – is a more serious failure of a human being. He robs the guests at the “happening” and hooks up with the cloakroom attendant while having his son stand watch outside. Presented with the choice between becoming a decent father figure and leaving with enough money that he’d never have to look back, Roger chooses to abandon his son and depart the plot. Again, he’s hardly a strong male figure in a script that doesn’t really have that many to begin with.

Indeed, even the town’s male sheriff is remarkably ineffective. Angelique is able to hijack his loudspeaker easily enough, and it’s quite clear that he has absolutely no authority or control over absolutely anything happening in this little town. During the climactic confrontation, all he seems to do is direct the townspeople away from the house with a half-hearted “nothing to see here, folks.” He’s just one example of a very clear trend.

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In contrast, the female characters are all relatively assertive. It’s David’s dead mother who saves the day by vanquishing Angelique. It’s worth noting that she drowned at sea on a family fishing boat, while her widower looks like he hasn’t worked a day in his life. Even Elizabeth steps up and takes on Angelique with a shotgun during the big finalé, after Barnabas proves himself pretty much useless in taking down his psychotic ex-lover.

It’s worth noting that you could make an argument that Victoria is the script’s most Burton-esque of characters. She’s the one whose journey takes her to to the Collins family, and it’s mostly through her eyes that we see them. More than that, though, she is an outsider who has been unable to fit in with regular society, and her character arc takes her from a person who never fit in to a genuine Burton-esque freak.

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Even Dr. Hoffman and Angelique, the two villains of the piece, seem far more proactive and engaging than the male characters. Both are fiendishly clever and pose a credible threat to Barnabas and his family. It’s also worth noting that both are defined as “evil” due to their excessive reliance on certain sexist clichés. Dr. Hoffman is concerned about growing old and getting ugly, while Angelique simply wants Barnabas to love her. Both are trite motivations for female characters, and the script seems to realise this. By portraying both aspirations as negative, it seems to make a point about how female characters in genre fiction are traditionally portrayed.

In contrast, Elizabeth is a much more effective character because she effectively heads the household. She manages Barnabas, manipulating him towards their shared ends – it’s Elizabeth who romantically recasts Barnabas’ past failures in order to motivate him, and she makes the decision to keep him around for as long as she feels he is of use. It’s very clear that she won’t tolerate a threat to the family in her care, and she seems to have a much stronger moral centre than Barnabas. While Barnabas is prone to melodramatics and bouts of melancholy, Elizabeth merely observes that the family will “endure.”

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Dark Shadows is fascinating because it feels strangely subversive. Even in 2012, the vast majority of high-profile releases were headlined by male characters, and seemed to dismiss the female characters as little more than set dressing. This is arguably especially true in genre films. I’ve always been a bit disappointed about the lack of strong female roles, so I suspect that part of my fondness for Dark Shadows is the way that it manages to create a movie populated with important female characters who drive the plot, while the male characters seem mostly superfluous to requirement. It’s an interesting reversal from the norm, and it’s something that Dark Shadows does without drawing attention to itself.

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One Response

  1. Count me as another who appreciate this film. I love the female context and the more than subtle domination of the work here. You’ve identified its theme very well, Darren. And as someone who survived the 70s, it gets the gist of the decade (as did ARGO) down so very well. I love the vibe that Burton achieved with this, and the little details and references he deftly scattered about. Its 70s soundtrack was one of the best I heard in 2012 — okay, I really wished they hadn’t used a less than stellar cover of the old Raspberries’ song “Go All the Way” to close on, but that’s a small quibble ;-). Well done, my friend.

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