Saturday, May 26, 2012

Burton & Depp’s “Shadows” of the Night

The 1966-71 horror/soap opera Dark Shadows has a legion of loyal fans who remember running home from school to watch the series featuring vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) interacting with werewolves, ghosts and witches. It was a little different from your typical daytime drama. He became something of a teen idol among female fans, along with Quentin Collins, played by David Selby. Many DS devotees attend conventions, write fan fiction, and purchase books, DVDs & memorabilia related to the series. The show also spawned two films: 1970’s House of Dark Shadows, and 1971’s Night of Dark Shadows. A short-lived primetime revival aired on NBC in 1991, and a pilot for another version was produced in 2004 by The WB network, but never aired.

Director Tim Burton & actor Johnny Depp are among those who loved the series when they were younger, and now they’ve teamed up to produce a big budget movie version of the show. Depp stars as Barnabas, who’s the son of a wealthy family that owns a successful fishing business in 18th century Maine. He has a fling with a servant named Angelique, but later rejects her. This turns out to be a mistake, as Angelique is a witch. She curses him & his family. His parents are killed; his true love Josette commits suicide, and Barnabas is turned into a vampire, and locked inside a coffin & buried for 200 years. In 1972, some construction workers end up releasing him, and he’s thrust into a strange new world of hippies, television and….The Carpenters.

Barnabas seeks out his descendants, and helps them revive the failing family business. Of course, he has to deal with his vampiric side, and asks for aid from the family’s hard drinking psychiatrist, Dr. Julia Hoffman. He also must battle a familiar and devilish enemy: Angelique, who is now the head of a rival company. She wants to have Barnabas for herself…or kill him & destroy the Collins legacy. Their love/hate relationship, played out in some sexy scenes, is one of the highlights of the film. There are real sparks between them, and Depp and Eva Green (as Angelique) have great chemistry.

Our vampire hero isn’t the only weird member of the Collins family: some of the others seem to have a peculiar side as well, including Jonny Lee Miller as Roger Collins, the materialistic brother of tough matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her daughter Carolyn, a sulky teen who has some funny interactions with Barnabas. And then there’s Victoria Winters, the family governess, who bears a striking resemblance to Barnabas’ lost love Josette. In a way, Barnabas' family is as eccentric as he is, and he's right at home in their world, even if he doesn't quite understand it.

Burton & Depp mine a lot of comedy from Barnabas’ fish out of water reactions to modern society. There’s some witty dialogue and quirky humor, typical of a Burton movie. The film looks great, with excellent production design & costumes, and there’s good use of period music & a flavorful score by Danny Elfman as well. But some of the scenes (especially the showdown between Barnabas & Angelique at the conclusion) recall other supernatural comedies like Burton’s own Beetlejuice (1988) or George Miller’s The Witches of Eastwick (1987). There’s a sense of déjà vu that settles over the film, and it’s not quite as strong as some of the earlier Burton/Depp collaborations. The script's tone wavers a bit, trying to find a balance between being funny and truly scary. Also, a third act revelation about one of the characters seems kind of tacked on, and too quickly & easily explained away.

But the actors are wonderful; Depp turns in a funny, offbeat (and slightly menacing) performance as Barnabas; Green is fantastic as Angelique, chewing the scenery with wild abandon. The rest of the cast, including Pfeiffer, Jackie Earle Haley, Helena Bonham Carter, and Chloe Grace-Moretz, have a great deal of fun with their roles. There’s a very brief cameo in the party scene by four stars of the original series: Selby, Lara Parker, Kathryn Leigh Scott, and Frid, who passed away recently. And rocker Alice Cooper appears as himself.

There was concern among DS fans when the first trailer for this film was released; it was clear that Burton wasn’t going to match the serious tone of the TV series. Many felt this version wouldn't honor the show. Despite its flaws, the script by Seth Grahame-Smith (who also wrote the book & forthcoming film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) has some nice nods to the series, and spoofs the original material in a gentle, endearing way. While this may not be their best film together, Dark Shadows (2012) is worth a look for DS fans, and for those who enjoy the work of Burton & Depp. And if you remember racing home to watch the original (or seeing the reruns, or the original films on late night TV), you may find yourself smiling a bit. Remember..."My name is Victoria Winters...."

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A Time Trip Through Star Trek's Universe

I grew up a fan of the original Star Trek, which I discovered, like many others, in syndicated reruns. It was fun when original novels based on the series began being published in the 70s and 80s. Prior to the successful movies and spinoff series, these novels were the only way you got to experience new adventures of the Enterprise crew. Around the time of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Pocket Books acquired the license to publish material based on the series, and expanded the scope of the books as sequel films and new TV spinoffs were released. Unlike Bantam Books, who published the previous series of novels, Pocket played around a lot with the established canon, and published stories from all eras of the various movies & shows.
I hadn’t picked up a Trek novel in a few years when I recently came across Christopher L. Bennett’s Forgotten History in the bookstore. It’s an enjoyable time travel story that stars the crew of the original USS Enterprise. The novel also features the two Department of Temporal Investigations Agents who were introduced in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Trials and Tribbleations,” in which the DS9 characters interacted with Kirk & company during the events of the “The Trouble With Tribbles.” This time, a mysterious ship that bears the warp signature of the original USS Enterprise appears, along with a temporal anomaly, deep in Federation territory. But its hull markings identify it as Timeship Two. What’s going on? And what does this all have to do with Kirk, who’s no favorite of the DTI for his many infractions regarding time travel and interfering with established timelines.
From that setup it’s a dizzying ride through the Trek universe, with references to many of the classic era series and movies (and a few other Pocket Books adventures), and some cameos by familiar faces from Star Trek history. As Agents Lucsly & Dulmur try to figure out what’s going on, we also get an inside look at the formation of the Department of Temporal Investigations, and see how the Federation tried to regulate time travel. Bennett is clearly a fan; he even references episodes of the Trek Animated series of the 70s.  The author also includes a helpful afterword that details all the episodes and books he’s referenced in the novel. By the way, Agents Lucsly & Dulmur’s names are anagrams for Agents Mulder & Scully from The X-Files, a little in-joke on the part of the DS9 writers.
If you’re an aficionado of Star Trek, this is a fun read which will leave you smiling as you recall some of the original episodes & movies featured here. While Bennett has authored a previous “Department of Temporal Investigations” novel entitled Watching The Clock, it’s not necessary to read that one to enjoy Forgotten History, which stands just fine on its own. He really gives you a sense of the rich tapestry that classic Trek established for all its follow-ups.  I highly recommend Mr. Bennett’s time travel adventure, even if you haven’t picked up a Trek novel in a while, or if you haven’t read one of the books. This one really is for the fans.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Avengers: Fantastic Superhero Action, Joss Whedon Style

Joss Whedon’s The Avengers is a terrific superhero film. There may have been some doubt in fan circles if a film featuring Marvel Comics’ premier super team could be pulled off, but this is an entertaining, action-filled movie. Marvel has done a fine job in the last few years of bringing various superheroes to the screen in individual films (the two Iron Man movies, Captain America, Thor, The Incredible Hulk) while subtly tying them together with cameos and in-jokes, so that viewers can see the heroes exist in the same shared universe. The Avengers is the payoff, the knockout punch, if you will, of all that groundwork. And bringing in Whedon (best known for the Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel TV series), to write & direct the project was a very, very smart move.
The villain here is Loki, who was prominently featured in Thor (2011). This time the Thunder God’s evil half brother has teamed up with an alien race to obtain a powerful object  called The Tesseract, (better known the Cosmic Cube to all you comic fans out there), and to use its power to….what else…. rule the world!  Nick Fury, the head of the super-secret organization known as SHIELD (Samuel L. Jackson, getting more screen time than he has in any of the previous movies) brings together a disparate team of heroes to fight the menace. Some are reluctant, some aren’t, but everyone seems to question if this group can function as a team. The roll call includes Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), archer/soldier Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and superspy/assassin The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). And of course, there’s the big green guy: The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, taking over the role from Ed Norton), who’s the uncontrollable wild card in the equation.
In true comic book fashion, the heroes battle each other (and their own demons), before coming together to battle Loki and his alien forces in a fantastic action sequence. Whedon juggles the group of heroes well, giving everyone a fair amount of screen time.  If you’re familiar with Whedon’s previous work on Buffy and Angel, as well as his comics work on titles like Astonishing X-Men, it’s no surprise that he presents the team as a sort of dysfunctional family, who have to get past their own issues and work together to defeat the villains. There’s also a lot of great dialogue & some wonderful humor in the film, another Whedon trademark.  Tom Hiddleston is satisfyingly creepy as the evil & manipulative Loki, and the supporting cast features Cobie Smulders as SHIELD agent Maria Hill, Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson (seen in some of the previous films), Stellan Skarsgard (in his role from Thor) and Gwyneth Paltrow, reprising her role from the Iron Man films.
Even if you’re not familiar with the comic book characters, you’ll be able to enjoy the snappy dialogue, wonderful special effects, solid performances & amazing action sequences. This is fantastic film-making at its best, and finely crafted popcorn entertainment. Whedon and his cast & crew have done a superlative job. The Avengers is one of the best superhero films ever, and it will be interesting to see where the Marvel heroes will be taken next, in the already planned individual sequels to their own films, and the now promised sequel to this one. A couple of additional notes: as with many of the previous Marvel movies, make sure you stay until the end of the credits for a couple of additional surprises. And while I viewed the film in 3-D, it’s not absolutely essential, as the movie was re-processed for (not shot in) 3-D, so it will play just fine in two dimensions.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

All Aboard...Hammer's Train of Terror

Christopher Fowler knows his horror film history. His recent novel Hell Train is set during the mid 60s, when Hammer studios was turning out a cycle of popular horror films starring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and a stable of reliable character actors. As our story opens, Screenwriter Shane Carter arrives in England to meet with Michael Carreras, the head of the studio. Hammer wants him to write a film for them. Carter has just worked with Roger Corman on his Poe films, and is looking for a new project. The catch is that Carreras needs the screenplay in a week, so production can begin quickly. What follows is Carter’s vision of the screenplay as the novel’s main story, with some brief interludes set while he’s writing the movie.
Aboard a mysterious train called the Arkangel, we’re introduced to a variety of characters whose fates are intertwined. Once you board the train, you can’t leave until you’re “tested.” A creepy Conductor leads the passengers on a trip whose destination may be…hell itself. Along the way, terrifying creatures and strange phenomena plague the passengers, some of whom are not what they seem. As they struggle with demonic forces, it becomes apparent that not everyone will leave this journey alive…and perhaps some people aboard are already….not among the living. And why does one of the passengers, a young woman named Isabella, seem to find the train so familiar?
Fowler pokes gentle fun at many of the classic Hammer films (and those of their contemporary competitors Amicus and Tigon) and throws in a freight car full of references & in-jokes for horror film fans. The main story set on the train is chilling; it’s an old school horror tale with some neat set pieces, and frightening moments. The novel is an expansion & re-imagining of Fowler's 2008 short story entitled "Arkangel." I would have liked to have seen more of the framing story, with Carter inter-acting with many of the Hammer films family, such as the memorable scene with stars Lee & Cushing. Fowler could have written an entire novel set within the horror film industry of the 60s, and that really could have been something. Still, this book is head & shoulders above most of what passes for horror fiction these days. If you’re a fan of 60s & 70s horror, and you're looking for some old fashioned, Creature Features style fun, Hell Train is a ride you’ll want to take.