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Key Films #25

Dark Shadows [Tim Burton, 2012]:

Is it a mistake to see Burton's work as nothing more than a series of empty stylistic tics; a hotchpotch of elements intended to create an atmosphere of enchanted grandeur or a context for his largely unthreatening air of unreality?  There is an element of this, perhaps - a self-conscious referencing of formative influences in an attempt to create humour through ironic juxtaposition and a sense of the impossible - but each of the films are also motivated by an actual theme.  A subtext as well as a more conventional storyline that is refracted by the allure of the visuals; the theatricality and the stylisation.  Maybe this is why Ed Wood (1994) remains his most enduring film; it's the one where the "plot" is central to our understanding of the events.  Ed Wood is, first and foremost, a film about filmmaking - the characters as "real people", dressing up to play a part - while his other movies are less direct.  However, in other films, such as Frankenweenie (1984), Batman Returns (1992) and Alice in Wonderland (2010), he deals with equally straightforward, "realist" subject matter, such a bereavement, political corruption (as a counter to the corruption of innocence) and the suffering of third-world characters under the rule of an oppressive dictator.  The look and design of the films may be ornate and highly imaginative, but the themes and ideas motivating this stylisation are ultimately very real.

With this in mind we turn to one of Burton's most recent films and one of his most derided.  On the surface, it's another camp caricature - an ironic "re-imagining" of a second-hand source with Johnny Depp playing a tortured grotesque - but is there not something more to this pastiche of the original 1960s soap opera than meets the eye?  More so than the industrial-set Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Dark Shadows is perhaps Burton's take on the conventions of the corporate satire.  A variation on the same territory of a film like Human Resources (1999) by Laurent Cantet or The Inheritance (2003) by Per Fly, in which a young man must face the responsibilities of the family business, or where a rivalry between two local companies develops through sub-plots and intermittent boardroom action.  The presentation of this is clouded by the usual 'Burtonesque' predilections - such as the influence of '30s monster movies and the 'Hammer' films studio - as well as a general subversion of American pop-cultural values; a deliberate distortion of an era made all the more alarming by having it seen from the perspective of an outsider, in this instance a man (literally) out of time.  By framing the film in such a way, Burton is better able to find humour in the situations encountered by this character.  A kind of "what if..." juxtaposition, as the protagonist attempts to make sense of something that is as preposterous to him as it is for the viewing audience.

In a way, the film finds Burton moving back towards the preoccupations of his earlier classics, such as Edward Scissorhands (1990).  A study of prejudice and the role of the outsider, in which the director once again exaggerates the perspective of the world and the appearance of his characters in an effort to present the disconnection felt by his protagonist, subjectively; the style obscuring the theme.  However, it is also about community; about people banding together in an attempt to make things work.  This, as a concept, ties into the greater idea of the corporate satire, which itself seems markedly more interesting in the context of the film's central relationship.  While the supernatural courtship between the lustful witch Angelique Bouchard and the immortal Barnabas Collins plays to a kind of farcical battle of the sexes, it can also be seen as a metaphor for the predicament of the small businessman struggling to exist within the shadow of this larger corporation.  In this sense, the presentation of the characters is a kind of personification of the two spheres of industry; with Barnabas as the 'old' (the family-run business) and Angelique as the 'new' (the conglomerate).  Their courtship is, as such, more an effort by Barnabas to "get into bed" with this corporation (literally andfiguratively); that choice between selling out in an effort to make his own company a success, or retaining credibility.  As an interpretation, it seems unlikely and unconventional, but it's also somewhat true.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch [Tommy Lee Wallace, 1982]:
The titles are superimposed over a montage of computer graphics.  The shapes, at first, indistinct forms, are pixelated, as if viewed on an old-fashioned television set.  The soundtrack by Alan Howarth and John Carpenter provides both atmosphere and rhythm; setting a tone of disquieting agitation through prolonged use of the analogue synthesiser; the sound of the film's beating heart.  By the end of the sequence, the shape - a system of lines and spaces - reveals the block orange "face" of a sinister looking jack-o'-lantern facsimile; the unofficial symbol of the season itself.  It's a remarkable update of the opening credit sequence of Carpenter's original film (which itself began with the slow reveal of an ominous pumpkin visage) and already a sign that this name-only sequel will be a very different take on the burgeoning franchise.  Radically, Michael Myers is gone, laid to rest in the generic predecessor Halloween II (1981), but the idea of a pervasive fear - a fear that disrupts the flow of comfortable middle-class existence and even infiltrates the sanctity of the home - still prevails through this rather interesting narrative, in which a demented toy manufacturer will attempt to turn the children of America into little murderers; ticking time-bombs waiting to explode.
In the original Halloween (1978), Carpenter created, in the form of Myers, a personification of true evil.  However, the brilliance of the film was not in creating this evil, or even in setting it free, but in placing it within the context of middle-class suburbia.  The palpable terror the audience felt was no longer just a fantasy of the supernatural, but a feeling of identification; the sense that this same evil could arrive in their own town, on their own doorstep.  Although radically different as both an idea and as a presentation, the television commercial 'motif' - which instigates the carnage in the film in question - functions on a similar level.  It's an example of the audience inviting something seemingly benign into their own homes, unaware of its true intentions.  The implication of a television broadcast (as insinuated by the use of the video footage of the opening credits) is therefore greatly significant.  It establishes, as a prelude, the way the television-set will be exploited later in the film; the commercial itself - which works as a leitmotif; connecting the earlier "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" style carnage to the later developments of the plot - is also a comment on the dangers of subliminal advertising, or even a critique of advertising in general.  Not necessarily as satire, perhaps, but as a hypothesis; a means of creating identification and suspense.
According to the history of the film, Halloween III was initially written by Nigel Kneale as a vehicle for director Joe Dante.  Although the subsequent work of replacement director Tommy Lee Wallace is not without merit (the filmmaker showing an effortless command of those characteristic "Carpenteresque" wide-shots and an approach to cutting - especially during the hospital assassination attempt - that rivals the best of Brian De Palma) I would still argue that the themes of the film are more in keeping with the interests and concerns of Dante and Kneale; the unseen "auteurs" of the film?  The use of the runestone and its ability to release positive and negative energies is straight out of Kneale's Quatermass and the Pit (1967) and The Stone Tape (1972) respectively, while the use of the television set, or the image as something powerful enough to shape the world, is an idea that Dante has returned to in several films, such as The Hollowing (1981) (which also incorporated video footage into its opening credit sequence), Explorers (1985) and Matinee (1993).  The lack of the iconic Michael Myers character and the unwillingness of an audience to embrace the new has seen Halloween III frequently cited as one of the worst films ever made.  However, in all honesty, I found it to be a fairly intense, even intelligent supernatural thriller, with an added 'meta-filmic' edge.


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