Thursday, June 21, 2012


Imagine, if you will, a place where you could go and listen to some of the most influential, hilarious, intelligent, enthusiastic and generous genre filmmakers in the movie business talking about the movies they love, the movies that made them who they are as artists, the movies that make them whack themselves on the forehead in disbelief, some of them which you’ve never seen or perhaps even heard of. Imagine this place, full of three-to-four minute mini-film classes and remembrances built not around the films themselves, but around their trailers, so that you could be sparked to see the whole movie on your own and form your own perspective. And imagine that each week all new presentations would be added to the vast vault of horror, sci-fi, drama, musical, western, war, film noir and comedy trailers already available. Now imagine that it wouldn’t cost you a plug nickel (or a virtual one either) in order to access all this effervescent genre goodness.

Well, imagination is a wonderful thing, but this is one area where it need not be exercised (at least initially), because this place already exists, grown up from a good idea back in 2007 into a genuine Internet phenomenon, a must-see visit for casual film fans, genre geeks and tenured cinema eggheads alike. Yes, I’m talking about Trailers From Hell, where 40 self-described “Grindhouse Gurus,” the likes of site founder Joe Dante, Guillermo del Toro, John Landis, Allison Anders, Larry Karaszewski, John Sayles, Edgar Wright, Mary Lambert and many more gather together offer commentary on a huge variety of Trailers from all corners of that very special Hell known as the history of Hollywood, and world, cinema. Toss a rock at the TFH menu (here’s where your imagination comes in—don’t really toss a rock at your monitor) and you’ll hit anything from Joe Dante on Fail Safe and Macabre, to Eli Roth on Rolling Thunder, to Larry Karaszewski on Get to Know Your Rabbit and Salo: the 120 Days of Sodom (How’s that for range?), to Allison Anders on Lisztomania, to Neil Labute on Leave Her to Heaven and Josh Olson on Mandingo and The Witchfinder General. This isn’t your garden-variety Internet movie geek snark-fest, a Mystery Science Theater 3000 for the ADD set—these people know their stuff, mixing reverence and deep movie knowledge with humor and sometimes genuine disbelief (“These movies actually existed! And they were sold this way!”) when they sit down to experience these trailers with you. (Currently it’s Francis Ford Coppola week at TFH, where Josh Olson and Adam Rifkin have already checked in on The Conversation and Rumble Fish, respectively, and where Larry Karaszewski will dive into One from the Heart tomorrow.) And, oh, yeah, Trailers from Hell is not a subscriber service. It’s free.

Dante and company, including producer Elizabeth Stanley, Webmaster extraordinaire Tom Edgar, “Secretary of Information and Technology” Danny Mears and art director Charlie Largent, who has been creating delightful, iconographic images for the site since the beginning, have offered up Trailers from Hell pretty much as a gift to film fans the world over for just over five years now. And if you’re someone (like me) who has appreciated their efforts over the span of those five years, maybe it’s time you and I gave a little something back. Trailers from Hell is attempting to complete a grand total of 1,000 episodes that can appear not only on the Web site, but also on services like YouTube, Blinkx Channels, cell phones and other 21st-century avenues of distribution that will ensure an even wider range of recognition and enjoyment for what these mad geniuses are doing. In order that this goal might be met, they’ve initiated a Trailers from Hell Kickstarter campaign designed to drum up funds to cover the myriad production costs entailed in creating this one-of-a-kind site, including marketing and promotion so that, as they say in their Kickstarter press release, they don’t remain “the best kept secret in Hollywood.”

The campaign aims to raise $30,000 by Thursday, July 19, and with 27 days to go at this writing they’re already up to $12,160, and they’ll get there with your help and mine. As often happens with Kickstarter efforts, those who donate to the Trailers from Hell cause will not only be helping to keep this great site going, but they’ll also be taking home some pretty keen premiums for themselves, depending on the level of monetary participation. I can’t do much, but every little drop in the bucket counts, and for my meager donation I’m claiming a copy of Joe Dante’s masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch on Blu-ray, signed by the director. And there’s lots more available to those who choose to take part: just look at all the goodies you could secure for yourself with even a comparatively meager pledge.

The Nine Circles of Trailers From Hell! from Trailers From Hell on Vimeo.

If you love classic genre movies of every stripe, if you love smart, funny people talking about classic genre movies of every stripe, if you love looking at the ways some of these wild and unusual cinematic beasts were initially presented to the public in the hopes of luring suspecting and unsuspecting ticket-buyers alike through the front doors of theaters, then you’ll love (and probably already do love) Trailers from Hell, and you might very well want to have some small part in ensuring that it continues as a vital destination for movie fans (of every stripe) on the information superhighway. It’s a great way to give back to these folks and perhaps get a little something more in return. Trailers from Hell remains a special place, where art and fandom and criticism and craft mix it up in a thunderdome of undiluted movie love, a place where “any movie can be great at two and a half minutes.” Who wouldn’t want to do something to make sure it stays that way?


Friday, June 15, 2012


The Horror Dads have convened yet again, and for the second year, in honor of perhaps the Most Important Day of the year coming up this Sunday, we’re weighing in on a subject near and dear to our black hearts-- what makes a really bad dad in the world of horror? Here’s Richard:

In preparation for Father’s Day this year, let’s talk about one of horror’s key motifs: Bad Dads. Some bad dads are born that way, some achieve badness; still others have badness thrust upon them. I guess the poster child for the bad dads of horror is Jack Nicholson in The Shining (1980), who starts off as a troubled but basically decent father and winds up doing some very dodgy parenting indeed.

This conversation gets good, and very quickly, so I encourage you to jump in a dig it all over at the home of the Horror Dads, TCMs fantastic blog, Movie Morlocks. We’ve done the Horror Dads roundtables for several years now, and I always find it an honor to be included in the august company of such smart, loving and sca-a-a-a-ry dads. But this one might just be the best Horror Dads roundtable yet, and the credit for that is due mostly to Richard Harland Smith, who manages to rope us all in from wherever the hell and whatever the hell we’re occupied with and get us talking, and then putting it together in a way that makes us all look good. (Well, maybe not me. Or Greg.) Thanks, Richard, for another outstanding effort.

And happy Father’s Day to all you horror dads, and the musical dads, and the film noir dads, and the western dads, and the costume drama dads—Well, you get it. Happy Father’s Day!

Wednesday, June 06, 2012


Well, here it is, the 79th birthday of the American drive-in movie theater, opened this day back in 1933 by visionary entrepreneur Richard Hollingshead, and all Twain-esque predictions of their cultural departure aside (reasonable predictions though they may have been), the drive-in is still with us and in some parts of the country still thriving. The numbers of drive-ins aren’t anything close to what they used to be, of course, but where drive-ins still fire up the projectors at night the folks who live nearby tend to be enthusiastic repeat customers.

So on this very happy birthday, I wanted to make sure SLIFR got in its fair share of celebrating. First up, there’s this terrific animated logo that Google has created to mark the significance of the day. You can, of course, click on Google for the next 18 hours or so, where you will not only get a great show but also a page of links to plenty of articles and info about the great outdoor movie-going experience. But in the interests of posterity, I’ve also made it just a bit easier for SLIFR readers by embedding the animation here:

But that’s not all. We’re also going to celebrate at a real drive-in theater. If you’re in the Los Angeles area next weekend and have a drive-in itch to scratch—maybe you haven’t been out to the drive-in in a while, or maybe you never been out to a drive-in— we’re gathering together beneath the four screens of the Mission Tiki Drive-in in beautiful downtown Montclair, California for another SLIFR Drive-in Movie Night.

SLIFR sponsored a drive-in party three years ago, in celebration of the release of a great movie to see at a drive-in, Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell, and we had a great night of fun. This time there’s no unifying feature, so getting a cake and prizes together won’t be in the cards. We’re just using the evening as an excuse to get together and celebrate the movies.

(Video courtesy of Sal Gomez.)

Details and updates on the festivities are available on the SLIFR Drive-in Movie Night event page. The skinny is that we’ll be getting early access to all four lots at the Mission Tiki on Saturday, June 16, which means that you can cruise right on in around 6:30 and get your pick of the best parking spots for whatever movie you want to see. Bring your coolers, blankets, chairs, boom boxes (for extra FM stereo sound, in case you don’t want to watch the movie in your car), and cash for the Mission Tiki’s excellent snack bar, and settle in for a very inexpensive double feature of whatever first run hits and misses will be playing next weekend. (Check the drive-in Web site beginning next week for a clearer picture of what the schedule of double features will be.) If you want to come-- and I’d love to see as many of you out there as possible-- please RSVP the Facebook page or, at the very least, e-mail me and let me know how many you’ll be bringing, just so I can give the heads-up to management, who are very generously giving us that early entry, as to an approximate idea of how many cars to expect in our group. I really do hope to see you there if you’re an SLIFR reader or drive-in fan in the Los Angeles area.

As part of today’s celebration, to get us all in the mood for the drive-in movie season, I’ve got a couple of items to share. If you’ve never been to the Mission Tiki drive-in before, you might be interested in this report I filed back in 2005, during this blog’s infancy, about some of the trips taken out there during my initial discovery of the place, as part of the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society.

There’s also this review I wrote upon seeing Rod Amateau’s “classic” comedy Drive-in (1976), which chronicles in American Graffiti-esque style the wacky adventures of a bunch of kids and adults during one night at a Texas ozoner.

On the 75th anniversary of the birth of the drive-in I filed this extensive primer on drive-ins and drive-in movies for Green Cine Daily which stands as a pretty good and comprehensive peek into the history of the drive-in culture.

And finally, the following piece, which I wrote two years ago upon revisiting what remains of the drive-in in the town where I grew up. This one dredged up a lot of memories for a lot of folks, including myself, of course, and I hope by republishing it here that it nudges you toward coming out to celebrate with the rest of us drive-in movie fans next Saturday night. Enjoy, and please don’t forget to replace your speakers before you leave.


(This article was originally posted on January 27. 2010.)

(Photograph by Carl Weese)

Southern California has just endured a relative deluge of thunderstorms and rain which began early last week and subsided, for the immediate future at least, only yesterday. There’s always overreaction on the part of the media when things get wet down here, and all hysteria aside it is natural to be concerned for those who might be in harm’s way when the hillsides get too wet and start yielding to gravity, as well as for those without homes who bank on the typically comfortable weather to cooperate with their need to stay warm and dry at night. But taken simply as weather, that is, one manifestation of the myriad possibilities for climate change possible in our atmosphere in general, I love the rain and it seems, now that I’m in a place where it rarely happens, that I can never get enough of it. It stimulates my mood, my sense of well-being, my creative urges, and my desire to wrap up in a blanket with loved ones. And I’m just a little bit down on a day like today when it looks like the current storm system has finally been swept away, giving the Los Angeles Basin back over to the relentlessly cheerful sunshine.

Ironically, it was during the storm that I got word of a beautiful collection of photographs that have sparked in me a sense of muted nostalgia and a desire to resume a favorite fair weather activity. On January 15, on their Lens blog devoted to photography, The New York Times posted an article entitled “Dark Screens, Bright Memories” which reveals the work of one Carl Weese. Weese’s simple (but not at all simplistic) and lovely photos of dilapidated drive-ins in far-away corners of Virginia, Indiana, Wyoming and other states have a simultaneous sadness and sense of celebration about them—for the drive-ins that still exist and for the unique architectural marvels of the individual drive-ins themselves, many of which still cut a geometrically expressive figure within their quiet, rural landscapes. “Drive-ins are this stealthily strong feature of American history,” Weese says in the Lens piece. “Each of these theaters, if not totally unique, sure is idiosyncratic… You have these marvelous repeating forms… Setting these shapes and forms that are now becoming familiar for me in different landscapes is something I find quite fascinating.”

The Lens piece examines Weese’s philosophy of photography and, beyond the beautiful slide show on the blog itself, also leads to Weese’s own extensive gallery of drive-in photographs, which will access the sense of longing inside anyone who ever spent time in a drive-in movie theater as a child or teen-ager, and inside anyone else who continues to patronize and hold dear those drive-in movie theaters that are still with us.

This newfound awareness of Weese’s photography also coincided with some pictures of my own that I took on a recent Thanksgiving trip back to my hometown in Oregon. I decided to take a brief pilgrimage to the site of the drive-in theater I frequented from about the age of three up until its final season during the summer of 1981, when I was 21. The theater was a kind of playground of wonders for me in my early years and an oasis during the long summer months when I finally got old enough to attend drive-in movies without parental chaperones, either with my older friends who had their licenses already or when I finally could legally drive myself. I also worked at the drive-in—manning the popcorn machine and changing out the C02 and syrup containers beneath the soda tap at the Circle JM Drive-in snack bar was my very first real job. (The Circle JM was named after a cattle brand owned by a rancher in the theater owner’s extended family, and the far wall of the snack bar was adorned by various local brands burned in wood and hung on display in the manner of a cowboy art gallery.) Unfortunately, the drive-in and its older brother, the indoor Alger Theater located in downtown Lakeview, were both owned by a man with shoulders made to droop by his sense of obligation at continuing the family business and very little corresponding showmanship or passion for either the business or the films themselves. He routinely looked down on his customers and sighed with disdain and indifference upon the changes of seasons during which one theater would be closed and the other reopened. Despite all this, I loved both places, not only because I eventually gained all kinds of access to them through my car and my job, but because both places helped to nurture the passion I’ve had for the movies ever since I was a very small child.

The Circle JM Drive-in closed for the winter in September 1981 amid rumors (which had become frequent over the previous 5-10 years) that both theaters were up for sale or that they had already been sold. In either case the message was clear—the owner was officially tired of his charge to bring movie entertainment to the citizens of this economically weakened and shrinking lumber town. And during the winter of 1982, as if in answer to a secret prayer, a powerful snowstorm landed on the Southeastern Oregon desert, dumping several feet of snow on the ground and making the air like cold knives with winds that blew through my hometown valley at speeds approaching that of the highway speed limit. The heavy snowfall had already added weight to the drive-in’s screen tower, which had been in dire need of bolstering and repair to the screen itself for over 10 years. When the winds began buffeting that creaky wooden construct sitting just off of Highway 395 on the north end of town, the screen simply gave up. It didn’t take long for the news to circulate, and so I made my way out to the drive-in armed with a camera. The sight before me when I got there was genuinely heart-wrenching. The screen was literally shorn in half, one side (I don’t remember which) still standing, and a horrific rip down the middle of the screen, as if it had been grasped on both ends by one of those giant Ray Harryhausen creatures, some of which had become so beloved to me on this very screen, and torn in two as if it were the world’s biggest phone book. There was no doubt in my mind when I saw the destruction that the Circle JM Drive-in had shown its last movie and that Lily Tomlin’s The Incredible Shrinking Woman, which I saw there earlier that past summer, was now my own official Circle JM swan song.

It’s been nearly 29 years since that screen reflected the last image cast by those ancient old carbon arc projectors housed in the tiny projection booth at the front of the snack bar. In the years since, the property was converted to an RV park which accommodates year-round travelers, including the many visitors attracted to the town by the annual county fair and Lakeview’s newfound status as a locale par excellence for hang gliding. (The mountain which looms over the town and the extending valley has an accessible shelf that is perfect for winged leaping.) And to my surprise, the people who took the property over, rather than raze the existing buildings, merely adapted them for use in the RV camp. So what was once the drive-in snack bar and projection booth has been converted to a convenience store and office from which the RV camp is operated. Gas pumps have been installed in back of the building, where the owners and snack bar employees parked their cars before every show. And best of all, rather incredibly and inexplicably, the old box office, situated mere feet away from the asphalt on Hwy. 395, has been left standing, if not exactly intact—the red letter marquee that used to be attached on top of it was dismantled when the drive-in closed. At some point, the RV park owner thought it would be a good idea to put a wooden Indian, complete with headdress, inside the box office, a phantom ticket-taker waiting for cars that would never come again, but when I visited this past November it was with some relief that I noted the absence of the chief. Also gone, unfortunately, is the beautiful neon deco sign that once announced the entrance off the highway to the driveway leading up to the box office window. I have photos of that sign, all lit up and beckoning at twilight, and shots of the shredded screen too, all buried somewhere amongst the junk in my house (under my bed, hopefully). I could not locate them for posting here, but if I find them at some later date I promise I will share. (And certainly, if there are any unofficial Lake County, Oregon historians reading this who may have pictures of the old drive-in during its active life and would like to share them here, I would love to hear from you.)

For now, here are the photos I took during my Thanksgiving 2009 Oregon trip of the grounds on which the Circle JM Drive-in used to stand. Not being well versed in digital image manipulation, I’ll just try to describe for you how each picture illustrates how the drive-in was laid out. These pictures are in no way intended to compare with Carl Weese’s achievements—they were taken by a very cheap digital camera with almost no consideration for composition or emotional effect. But they are, in their own way, tributes to the kind of emotions that his photographs stirred up in me when I saw them, even though mine were taken a couple of months before I was exposed to Weese’s talented eye. (Click on the individual images for a much clearer, closer view.)

In this shot, taken from across Highway 395, the old snack bar is visible in the background, behind a row of trees. At the leftmost point in the photograph is where the old Circle JM neon sign stood, at the driveway entrance which proceeded across right, parallel to the highway, and led to the box office window.

Looking from the area that marked the furthest point from the screen on the field, the back side of the old snack bar, now a convenience store, is clearly visible. Directly in front of it stood the old screen, with probably only five or six rows of speaker poles between them. Customers entered the snack bar on the door furthest on the left of the building (this door serves as the one entrance to the store now) and would exit via another door on the same side of the building, but at the front. That picture window directly to the right of the entrance door was, at the time the Circle JM was in operation, a brick wall-- there was no window. Inside, on the reverse side of that wall, was where the wood-burned brands that made up the cowboy art gallery were hung.

The original box office for the Circle JM drive-in still stands, completely nonfunctional, to this day. A red letter-board marquee was mounted on the roof of the box office and provided an irresistible lure for wise-acre teen-aged boys (not unlike Your Humble Narrator) who occasionally could not pass up the opportunity, late on a dark and moonless night, to hop on top of the low-lying platform roof and rearrange the letters into some form of hilarity or another that the projectionist/site handyman would have to dutifully restore to normalcy the next day. You can see how the driveway split off to pass both sides of the box office. On nights when the cars backed up to and a half-mile or so down the highway, there would be a second cashier working the window closest to the snack bar in addition to the other side, which was the only side available to approach on most summer evenings.

A little closer to the box office. From this angle, you can see how the person running the ticket window (usually the owner or his wife, or sometimes their son) had a pretty good overview of the entire field. Looking out toward the west along the Z-axis, if it still stood the screen would have been directly visible over the roof of the snack bar in this shot.

Closer in and off to the south side of the snack bar building, you can more easily see the customer entrance door (right) and the customer exit door (left, now boarded up) which kept popcorn munchers and slurpers of carefully concocted swamp water (a mixture of Coke, root beer, orange and Sprite) moving efficiently back to their cars... unless, of course, they wanted to hang out around the periphery of the snack bar and talk to friends before the show started, which, by the way, never ever happened...

From the southwest corner facing the main building you get the best view of the closed snack bar exit door (now right). You can also see, just to the left, two large picture windows, also now boarded up, which provided those in the snack bar line a clear view of the screen in order that they might keep up with the action while they waited for me to reload the popcorn machine or mix their swamp water. There was also an audio speaker placed directly over the windows with the movie sound conveniently piped in as well. To the left, the window on the other side of the swamp cooler, also shuttered, once looked out onto the field and screen from the manager's office, a comfortable area where we employees often munched hot dogs and watched the rest of the movie once our shift was over. That area led directly into the projection booth, which occupied the area directly to picture left of the swamp cooler. As you can see, the booth was at ground level, but even so the throw of the projector lamps weren't pitched at much of an upward angle because the field in front of the booth was a naturally occurring hill, allowing the foundation of the screen tower to originate on ground that was considerably lower than where the projectors were housed. Speaking of temptations, however, I don't believe there was ever a night at the Circle JM Drive-in that wasn't punctuated by at least one person, on his or her way to the snack bar from the north side of the field, who could not resist the urge to throw hand puppet shadows or otherwise momentarily block the path of the light from the projectors to the screen. Just as funny the 3,000th time as the first, I can testify!

(You can whet your whistle for the coming drive-in season by reading my Drive-in Movie Primer at Green Cine Daily. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, it’s already time to check out what’s happening at the Vineland Drive-in in the City of Industry, the Mission Tiki Drive-in in Montclair, the Van Buren and Rubidoux Drive-ins in Riverside, the South Bay Drive-in in San Diego, the Sunset Drive-in in San Luis Obispo, the Skyline Drive-in in Barstow and the Smiths Ranch Drive-in in 29 Palms. And if you’re anywhere else in the country, find the drive-in nearest you at


Saturday, June 02, 2012


Modern movie trailers usually don’t involve the blaring hyperbole of old Hollywood hucksterism-- The SINGLE most SEARING and SENSUAL SAGA ever to SWEEP across the BIG SCREEN!— or especially the blatant three-card-Monte-style deception of exploitation trailers like those from the glory days of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. (Every obsessive with a computer terminal is watching too closely these days for anyone to get away with that.) But even the best of today’s advance previews for big studio product often share a very similar aroma of desperation with those classic cinematic con jobs—the real difference, beyond a certain level of technical sophistication, of course, is that the stakes are often much higher, with the future financial viability of studios (or at least their executives) hanging in the balance. So marketing departments, never the industry’s most risk-taking branch, tend to go bananas trying to pack every single element that might appeal to the film’s target demographic, especially if the movie is effects-heavy, into one 2.5-minute tracing of the movie’s entire narrative arc, sensitivity to spoilers and variances of tone be damned. (Can you imagine how this movie might be sold to today’s A.D.D.-addled audiences, as accustomed as they are to advance exposure to a movie’s every narrative secret?)

And sometimes a trailer is so accurate to the experience of watching the movie that 2.5 minutes is all anyone could be reasonably expected to endure—expanded to feature length, watching the same image-splintering rate of editing for two hours plus, enhanced by Hollywood’s most up-to-date ear-searing sound, can begin to feel like staring into a strobe light from inches away while seated on a crowded airport tarmac. (I submit to you Armageddon.)

And speaking of a trailer’s presumed relationship to the thing it is promoting, the Twitterverse, that harsh realm of self-righteous acrimony and instant judgment, is a place where the release of a movie’s preview is evaluated with as much scrutiny as the movie itself, often sealing prejudicial points of view like mosquitoes in amber once the film is finally released despite that the preview may not accurately convey the experience of actually seeing it. Certainly the reception of the trailer for John Carter exacerbated that bottom line-busting feature’s (unwarranted) bad buzz and fiery demise, and one could have been forgiven for assuming The End Was Nigh based on all the apocalyptic proclamations and Internet-equivalent traipsing around in sackcloth and ashes upon first look at the trailer for The Three Stooges. (The Four Horsemen were nowhere near the theaters where I twice saw the Farrelly Brothers’ slapstick tribute to the original Stooges. Turned out the movie was hilarious.)

So when the trailer for Dark Shadows was unleashed about a month before its May 11 release there was plenty of wailing and gnashing of teeth, and I was right at the front of the line of vocal worriers. The original show, produced by Dan Curtis, was a gothic soap opera which ran from 1966 to 1971-- after a tepid first year it gained unprecedented popularity by introducing to its cast Jonathan Frid as the vampire Barnabas Collins, who would spearhead the show’s move into all-out Hammer-influenced horror and suspense over the rest of its run and himself become an unlikely object of all sorts of pre- and post-adolescent passion. But many of us who carried fond memories of running home after school in a desperate attempt to not miss a single second of the series felt stunned and woefully let down by the trailer for Tim Burton’s new movie which, after a suitably atmosphere-drenched beginning, devolved into a mirthless and desperate minute and a half’s worth of wacky gags revolving around the attempt of a 200-year-old vampire (now played by Johnny Depp) to adjust to the glowing lava lamp-lit world of America in the early ‘70s. I had to admit that based on what I saw in the trailer, I could hold out little reasonable hope that this new take on Dark Shadows would be one that I would value or appreciate, and I carried those apprehensions with me as I took my seat on opening weekend.

Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows begins with the sound of flutes cascading off of Danny Elfman’s mournful orchestration like bitter rainfall-- the one musical motif in the score directly attributable to the TV show's original composer Robert Cobert-- and Johnny Depp’s voice, wave-shifted into a resonant replica of Frid’s sonorous British-tinged inflections intoning, as the camera sweeps over a picturesquely dank and fog-enshrouded 18th-century Liverpool, “It is said that blood is thicker than water”-- two liquids with which the protagonist will soon become tragically familiar on the coastal rocks beneath the cliffs of the aptly named Widows Peak. Barnabas, the son of a wealthy entrepreneur who moves his family from England to America’s Northeast to establish a foothold in the fishing industry, dares to spurn the obsessive attentions of a lovely but intense chambermaid by the name of Angelique Broussard (Eva Green)-- who happens also to be a witch with a nasty vengeful streak. Angelique compels Barnabas’ true love, Josette (Bella Heathcote), to suicide, and he himself is cursed with eternal, bloodthirsty life as a vampire at her hand. With the help of the town’s easily manipulated torch-bearing mob, she arranges to have her would-be lover buried alive, setting up a none-too-comfortable 200-year confinement in which he must contemplate his punishment and suffer his newfound cravings.

At this point Dark Shadows shifts gears and segues forward to what turns out to be 1972, but what’s immediately apparent is that the transition is not going to be as jarring as that trailer seemed to promise. (The blissfully rich cinematography, which also spans the centuries, comes courtesy of Bruno Delbonnel, who shot Amelie, A Very Long Engagement and, most recently, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.) The melancholy of the movie’s opening is somehow extended over 200 years by helicopter shots of a northbound Amtrak train snaking through the woods, and the music guiding the train is not Elfman’s signature evocations of the fearful regret buried in Cobert’s original score, but instead the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin,” which turns out, in this age of classic rock abuse, to be a perfectly sublime choice. On the train is a dead ringer for Josette, Victoria Winters (also played by Heathcote) who is bound for a governess job at the dilapidated Collins family estate—Collinwood—where the remains of Barnabas’s ancestry—Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), her parasitical brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), and their two respective children, Caroline and David (Chloe Grace Moretz and the wonderfully named Gulliver McGrath)—are barely keeping the mansion’s doors open. They have some help, such as it is, from groundskeeper Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley) and Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), the psychologist brought in three years earlier to help David cope with the tragic drowning of his mother, but it’s clear that however haunted by tragedy, the Collins family’s better days seem to be past.

Soon enough Barnabas, unearthed by unfortunate construction workers who end up constituting his first happy meal in 200 years (the carnage is loosed in the golden glow of the movie’s funniest bit of product placement), joins his at-first suspicious but soon tentatively welcoming descendants in an attempt to loosen the stranglehold on the family fishing business held by a rival company, which just happens to be headed by a ruthless businesswoman who bears a luscious resemblance to the vampire’s age-old nemesis. Here the movie settles into its own groove, one marked by the contrast between the Europeanized flavor of Barnabas’ anachronistic manner and language, permeated as it is by the doomed romanticism of his gothic back story, and the laid-back vibe of the Me Decade. It’s a happy revelation when Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith demonstrate there’s more juice in that contrast than just simple-minded Brady Bunch Movie-style wisecracks and sight gags. True, some of those gags wilt rather than blossom, but even so Burton fashions terrific moments out of Barnabas’s encounters with pop culture icons of the day like Super Fly and a certain buzzing Milton Bradley board game, and the wit embedded in Grahame-Smith’s dialogue is often sharper, more off-kilter funny than the goods other filmmakers might have settled for. At one point Barnabas suggests they throw a ball to reassert their family’s prominence in the town. Sullen, stoned Caroline counters that no one throws balls anyone, they throw happenings, ones that have live rock music and plenty of booze, to which Barnabas replies, with his characteristically sonorous enthusiasm, “We shall have spirits enough to fill a schooner’s hull!” (It is told that the low-grade rumble created by Caroline’s epic eye-rolling could be discerned for countless miles down the Eastern Seaboard.)

The movie is of course also in love with that gothic sensibility, a surprising level of which is sustained marvelously by the sets, mixing the dark-wooded, shadowy old world architecture of European influence with shag-carpets, novelty phones and mile-wide lapels to hilarious effect. (The movie's set design is by Rick Heinrichs, who has created, among many other things, a spectacularly creepy/groovy chandelier for the main foyer of Collinwood that, upon closer inspection, looks like a giant crystalline octopus.) And it’s all topped off by a howlin’ wolf chorus of carved creatures that surround the opening of a grand fireplace and signal the opening of a secret passage into one of Collinwood’s deepest, darkest catacombs. But the most surprising thing about Burton’s take on this material is how well integrated the ‘70s comedy is with what amounts to not so much a parody of familiar gothic tropes as a sincere celebration of them, and some of the movie’s best instances of that celebration come in its use of the music of the period.

One of my favorite moments in the entire movie comes when Barnabas, in conversation with the newly sympathetic Elizabeth, sits at the organ and bemoans his curse. He lays his weary head down on the keyboard, and we ready ourselves for a gloriously ominous, full-throated pipe organ chord that will express, in familiar aural terms, Barnabas’s tortured soul. What comes out instead is ominous, all right, only the organ at which Barnabas sits turns out to be one of those electric organs so ubiquitous in the ‘70s, the ones that replaced less-affordable pianos in many homes and featured tacky built-in rhythm machines. The chords accompanying Barnabas’s anguish end up accompanied by a silly computerized conga beat that incongruously, and yes, gloriously underscores all that agony and dissonant passion. Having already mentioned the ghostly appropriateness of the Moody Blues, there’s also Moretz’s hilarious, insinuating slink across the foreground of a family dinner to the strains of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch.” (The use of Barry White’s “You’re the First, My Last, My Everything” during Barnabas and Angelique’s comically violent sex scene falls flat, however, largely because it’s too obvious and it doesn’t similarly link up those two incongruous narrative themes.)

But special mention should be made of the movie’s use of Alice Cooper as the evening’s entertainment at that aforementioned Collinwood happening. Burton fashions what could simply have been a marketing hook and an opportunity for a couple of wryly amusing lines (one of which you’ll be familiar with from the trailer) into a spectacular set piece in which Cooper’s performance of “The Ballad of Dwight Fry” is intercut with not only the action at the dance (which includes, if you look very quickly, appearances by four veterans of the TV series, including Frid, who recently died), but also a flashback to Victoria’s brutally sad, literally haunted childhood, neutralizing for the moment Heathcote’s somewhat recessive presence and suffusing the movie with an resurrected rush of romantic, emotional resonance between her and Barnabas. (It won’t be the last.)

Dark Shadows is a surprise in so many ways, but the lukewarm reaction to it in some quarters begs the question, has Tim Burton begun to wear out his welcome? (This recent parody seems to suggest as much.) Many might agree with one critic I read who wrote that the new movie is a disappointment because “(it) has much more to do with what goes on inside director Tim Burton's head than with any TV show, no matter how beloved.” Which prompts me to pose a question of my own-- Why shouldn’t it? Was not the Monument Valley of The Searchers and countless other films largely a product of John Ford’s romantic imagination, recognizable through plenty of directorial reincarnation? To be certain, Dark Shadows is an imperfect movie, almost by its nature as a Burton joint. Certainly there’s plenty of evidence here to spark the usual complaints, including the one that suggests he’s more of an art director than a director (the perfect rebuttal to which is that “Dwight Fry” sequence); or that he hasn’t the facility or the interest to tell a straight story, a trait that many diverse, undisciplined and acclaimed filmmakers worldwide share, by the way; or that he’s simply too interested in the candy-colored goblins dancing inside his own skull to the exclusion of everything else. (The movie of Burton’s I find most cloying and overwrought in its bid to draw parallels between its director and its wounded, oh-so-sensitive outsider hero-- Edward Scissorhands-- is the one many count as among his best.)

Also, the general flatness of the Victoria/Barnabas romance in Dark Shadows certainly bears the stamp of a filmmaker who finds it the least interesting element in his brew, and Heathcote, though obviously cut from the Winona Ryder cloth of giant-eyed Burton ingĂ©nues (she even looks like the director’s corpse bride), is too bland—when she seems to disappear from the movie near the end, it actually takes a while for her absence to register.

There is probably also two too many scenes between Barnabas and the modern-day Angelique, in which the vampire demands to be set free from her lingering influence—Green’s gorgeous, wild-eyed succubus makes Alex Forrest look, well, like Victoria Winters-- although we’re so glad to see Depp and Green playing off each other (more about them in a second) that they conjure a very forgiving mood. Finally, inevitably, Dark Shadows, like many big-budget Hollywood movies that have come before it and that will certainly arrive right on schedule in its wake, ends up devolving into a special sort of mess, an effects free-for-all, once the third-act warning bell sounds off. During this big, largely nonsensical climax the movie begins to take on a whiff of panic, despite our delight in individual touches and actor moments. (We’re especially ill-prepared for a last-minute revelation involving one of the lead characters, one that makes emotional and hormonal sense but seems to come, at least to this viewer, from some hidden, little-used wing of Collinwood Manor, deeper evidence of which may be on the cutting room floor.)

But overall, and strangely, the movie’s scattershot episodic approach to its narrative, in which bits and pieces of several story notions from the original series get compacted into a two-hour Hammer-infused cocktail, ends up working in its favor as an offhanded tribute to the source material, which was nothing if not often unfocused and usually conjured on the fly.

And, oh, what actor moments. Burton coaxes terrific work from Jackie Earle Haley as Loomis (“It’s October. That’s why there’s punkins.”); Michele Pfeiffer as the moody Collins family matriarch (“But, Barnabas, in your own crazed, mixed-up sort of way, you saved the family!”), though the filmmakers forget to make her character relevant in the second half; Gulliver McGrath, who sells little David Collins’ parental anguish without a trace of precociousness; Chloe Grace Moretz, who seethes memorably as the disaffected Caroline in a way that will be familiar to parents of teenaged daughters of any era; and especially Helena Bonham Carter, who does a great fright-wigged, pill- and booze-ridden evocation of Grayson Hall’s would-be immortal Dr. Julia Hoffman, who becomes seduced by the selfish possibilities in guiding Barnabas to a cure for his eternal malady (“Every year I get half as pretty and twice as drunk.”) Only Miller fails to make much of an impression, and that has everything to do with the fact that the filmmakers haven’t integrated Roger Collins very adeptly into the proceedings and not with his capability as an actor.

Of course, this is Depp’s movie, and he brings to it his characteristic, well-documented quirkiness, but also a surprising passion that serves as a built-in rejoinder to those who might be at this point suspicious of his penchant for the deliberately odd. Even after the increasingly diminished returns of repeated visits to the Captain Jack Sparrow well, I can’t think of another actor working right now (maybe Woody Harrelson) who so ably combines as Depp does the magnetic qualities of a leading man with the hunger to explore the strange nooks and crannies of character with such attention-grabbing fierceness and, paradoxically, lack of the understandable fear of looking foolish. Depp’s Barnabas isn’t a stunt, nor is it just another excuse to dress up in odd clothes and prosthetics for the Burtonesque fun of it. He manages to embody the tension within a character who hasn’t yet surrendered his moral imperative as a man to his supernatural compulsion to kill, in vocal, physical (observe those claw-like bangs) and spiritual tribute to Jonathan Frid, while at the same time keeping in tune with and alive to the comedic tone of Burton’s homage. His blinkered confusion over the time in which he has awakened (“A woman doctor! What an age is this!”) is far more sublime than the joke-packed trailer could ever suggest. (And it also helps that we don’t get exposed to practically all of those jokes in two and a half minutes—the movie clocks in at just under two hours.) This is a glorious performance, exhilarating in its capacity for romantic yearning and sheer silliness, which deserves to spoken of in the same breath as Depp’s Raoul Duke, his Willy Wonka and, yes, his Ed Wood.

But as much as Depp, the element that makes Dark Shadows really take off is the breathtakingly funny work delivered by Eva Green as Angelique, a witch who makes it her eternity’s mission to destroy not only Barnabas but the fortunes of the entire Collins family because of the 200-year-old romantic slight over which she is still seething. Decked out in a blonde wig that is closer to her natural hair color than the darker hue seen in films like Casino Royale and The Dreamers, Green has the luscious complexion and spectacular figure of a movie star, a femme fatale to whom most men wouldn’t mind succumbing. She also has eyes that pop out of her skull in a way that must have sent her groovy ghoulie director into paroxysms of pleasure, and a mile-wide grin that stretches so sensually in its sinister insinuations that the moniker “Sardonicus” might occasionally come to mind. Green’s has to be the best, most improbably grand mouth on a comedienne since the heyday of Martha Raye, yet she’s also a classic, haunting beauty, one with, as it turns out, killer comedic instincts. She mixes supernatural sensual entitlement and erotic mystery with superbly weird and hilarious choices—at times she seems literally drunk on both her power and her desire to possess Barnabas, and at times she hits her overextended American accent (she’s French) too hard, which has the effect of a hint at Angelique’s rage being barely contained, twisted into shapes she can’t adequately express beneath the appearance of the cool, modern businesswoman she’s constructed.

Confronting Barnabas, her steely, seductive gaze widens slightly and suddenly we can witness the madness and the obsession inside-- we know she’s no longer seeing her would-be amour or anyone else who happens to be standing in front of her, but only the agonized tease of tortures and curses perpetuated yet still unfulfilled. The logistics of Angelique’s supernatural persona don’t tend to hold much water upon close examination—she’s a witch who at some point along her journey through time has somehow become, literally, a fatally beautiful mannequin—and she’s at the eye of the movie’s overwrought climactic implosion. But it’s crucially wrong, even as subject to CGI as her character eventually becomes, to proclaim that Green’s performance itself, in all its devilishly comic glory, is ultimately reduced to a special effect. Her face cracked like the most sublime eggshell, those burning eyes, the mouth twisted into a final rictus of disappointment and outrage-- those features, which remain to the end under the actress's intelligent control, tell the real story.

We tend to give plenty of credit to actors who conjure mixtures of emotion, humor, pathos and grandeur, but only if they do it in a proper, Oscar-friendly context of sweeping drama or epic biographical exploration. Dark Shadows, on the other hand, is on its gorgeously rendered surface an inconsequential, unapologetically entertaining movie, so it may take a few decades (hopefully not centuries) for audiences to recognize the value of Green’s contribution, and Depp’s. They serve as perfect compliments to a cracked director’s latest love child, a swoony, silly, visually resplendent tribute to movies and monsters that are thankfully, like the craving that drives Barnabas Collins himself, still in his blood.


P.S. While not a Battleship-sized bomb, the box office returns for Dark Shadows have been disappointing. The movie is still holding on to screens, but it stands to be crowded out soon in the coming weeks by the likes of Prometheus, Madagascar 3 and other potential crowd-pleasers of summer. Though I’m a lifelong fan of the series, if you share that status there’s certainly no guarantee that you’ll find the movie as delightful as I did. (I can’t imagine the reaction of those for whom the names Jonathan Frid, Dan Curtis and Lara Parker mean nothing.) But I doubt even if you dislike it that you’ll mistake it for any number of other committee-made pictures to which we’re exposed every year. Go ahead. Take a bite.


This one's for Bruce and Don. I'm really glad we all loved it.



Brazilians in Rio de Janeiro get Christ the Redeemer, but here in Glendale, California, there's another icon overseeing life as we live it every day from high atop the Verdugo Hills.

Reg Green, 83, a mountain biker tooling around last month on one of the trails above the city discovered a cut-out of Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name set up on the hillside, initially mistaking the distinctive figure for a time traveler from the world of movies past. “For a split-second, it did look as though there was a genuine, old-fashioned cowboy out there,” said Green.

According to a city spokesman, the cut-out bears a marker which reads "Glendale Public Art Project 2012," but it doesn't seem to be affiliated with any official city arts program and it's unknown just who is responsible for setting it up.

For citizens of Glendale, at least for the time being, the reassurance of just knowing that he's up there, watching over us, will have to be enough. And don't think that when I fire up For a Few Dollars More tonight that I won't gaze off to the northeast and tip my cap.