Friday, July 27, 2012

Great Recasting Blogathon: Val Lewton's Dark Shadows




The following is me humble contribution to the Great Recasting Blogathon hosted at Rianna's Frankly, My Dear and Natalie's In The Mood. When I read the following on Rianna's page describing this cyber-shindig, long-time followers o'mine can imagine how I jumped to:

So the premise for this blogathon of ours is as follows: to recast a film made after 1965 in a year pre-1965 with actors in the lead roles and a director that were popular at the time. Supporting cast is optional. You have to explain why you chose the actors & director. We are allowing two recasting per film. If this sounds a little confusing, here is an example: the well known modern filmTitanic (1997) was made in 1997, but for this blogathon you could change the year, for example, to 1945, cast Ingrid Bergman in the Kate Winslet role, Cary Grant in the Leonardo diCaprio role, and switch the director from James Cameron to George Cukor. 
Well, gee, if you're going to twist my arm....

Naturally, being the obsessive nostalgic fangirl that I so very much am, I set my sights on opposite-updating Dark Shadows. Y'know, that '60s soap opera about vampires and an old creepy mansion in Maine? I might have mentioned it before, I don't remember.

*Note: I'm focusing on the original '60s series and the new Burton movie when discussing previous performances here. Sorry, Revival, but I already devoted a long, rambling post to you, so there ya go.

I didn't actively dislike Burton's recent treatment of Dark Shadows, but he did bungle an awful lot. There's a fantastically fun, weird project peeking out from the choppy editing and questionable script choices, but I just don't think a modern major film studio knows how to package such a sprawlingly bad-good, gothic melodrama like DS.

But I'll bet you anything Val Lewton around 1940 could.



I'd argue that even more than David O. Selznick there was never a producer in his time period who left a more personal stamp on his projects than Lewton, ableit working in a far more insular and genre-specific arena than someone like Selznick.  He specialized in the psychological aspect of horror, his unusual and surprisingly emotional 1942 Cat People bringing a strange dignity and mo' monies to RKO's B-Horror division. He was put in charge and turned out other B-classics that, though they might not have matched the unique energy and not-quite-rightness of Cat People, are still quietly enthralling in their own right: I Walked with a Zombie, Bedlam, Isle of the Dead, and the moving sequel to Cat People called Curse of the Cat People.

Even though his films depended mostly on fears centered around what you couldn't see, that doesn't mean he couldn't deliver on the visuals. Who can forget the sight of the comatose Christine Gordon and the dead staring eyes of the looming Darby Jones in I Walked with a Zombie, the lighting that made Julia Dean look like an undead gremlin as she tells little Ann Carter the story of "Sleepy Hollow" in Curse of the Cat People? Classic imagery.

The psychological and physical combined to create an atmosphere in Lewton movies most modern gothic directors can only drool at. This, and his career in low-budget flicks, would make him a perfect fill-in for Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis in a wacky alternate dimension 1940s DS flick.

Not to mention that like Lewton's film oeuvre, Dark Shadows isn't a typical horror show. As in any soap opera, DS relied on the emotions reflected in the characters and the storylines, with the supernatural there to add an extra dollop of dark urgency. That contrast could be the key to the show's success and unique hold on non-soap fans, and possibly for Lewton as well. Only his reception was reversed--his horror films attracted not only thrill seekers but also sensitive, non-horror fans who enjoyed getting wrapped up in a good story.

So:

Producer
Val Lewton

Director

Gotta go with Jacques Tourneaur, director of Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie. The eerie, dreamlike quality of the first makes the scenes of Irena Dubrovna (one of the most sympathetic fictional characters ever?) succumbing to her feline heritage all the more disturbing, and yes, heartbreaking. Plus, he proved in Zombie that he knows how to film compelling stories in gothic mansions featuring stuffy family members who happen to be festering with SECRETS.

Robert Wise would be a completely acceptable alternate.

As for my cast, I've decided on a mish-mash of Lewton regulars and general 1940s actors who fit the bill.

Such as:

Boris Karloff as Barnabas Collins



Karloff was a loyal veteran of Val Lewton's, starring in 1945's Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher, and 1946's Bedlam. If we're to set this movie in, say, 1940 (which was two years before Lewton really hit it big, but work with me here), that would make Karloff...oh...about 53 years old. That made me a little hesitant to cast him as Barnabas, but then I thought, screw it, to hell with this ageist crap. After all, Depp is almost 50, and even though Jonathan Frid was only 42 when he first played the role, he...well...had the sort of craggy features that made him look like he could be older. 

What both Karloff and Frid have that I think Depp lacks is a highly unconventional sex appeal--a haunted, hollowed, imposing gravity. I thought Depp acted Barnabas well enough in the half-parodic setting of the new movie. But his look was absolutely wrong; you want someone who's starkly different not because of makeup, but because of an eerie presence that's anachronistic with his setting. Karloff has that presence. Plus, his romantic yet cruel Imhotep in The Mummy not only showcased his pathos, but also showcased his ability to play within the "lost love comes back reincarnated" trope.

Frances Dee as Victoria Winters/Josette DuPres


Victoria Winters, the governess protagonist of Dark Shadows, was inspired by Jane Eyre. Betsy Connell, the nurse protagonist in I Walked with a Zombie played by Frances Dee, was inspired by Jane Eyre. Coincidence?! Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe it's confusing I even brought it up.

Dee too has a rare gravity, a gravity that makes her often soft-spoken characters seem stronger and more tolerable than the usual damsel type. And as an added bonus, Becky Sharp and Little Women are proof she looks achingly lovely in period gowns. That on top of her subtle lyricism would make her a very sympathetic Josette in flashback, Barnabas's Lost Lenore. Critics and audiences often view Alexandra Moltke's turn in the original and Bella Heathcote's in the new movie as wooden, unexciting. For all Dee shares these gals' muted line deliveries and even expressions, there's a warmth and quiet vitality to her work that would help make Vicki more animated, more believable (I say this as a Victoria fan who acknowledges her dippy ingenue issues).

Simone Simon as Angelique Bouchard


For anyone who's a fan of the Cat People movies, this actress enchants you. Her Irena's the most sympathetic character, unusually comely and appealing for someone playing the alleged monster of the title. Yet still...some weird stuff is going on behind that kittenish doll's face that's eerily off-kilter, a note that's just a mite tone-deaf in that sing-song voice. "There is something subtly alarming about [her] oddly mannered good-girl behavior," Roger Ebert says in his review of Cat People.

Angelique has to master similar "Good-girl" behavior in order to thrive in Collinsport without anyone discovering her secret powers. Yet she should indeed remain "oddly mannered;" this will remind us of the cray cray evil boiling away underneath the pretty surface. However, like I said, Simon also commands a great deal of sympathy as Irena, a sympathy vital to any portrayal of Angelique that's as fully realized as Lara Parker's original performance. As scintillating as Eva Green is in the new movie, she's almost too flamboyantly nuts for us to believe a true aching heart exists there within her broken frame. Simon's ethereal spookiness combined with the human weight she brings to her characters would make Angelique the complex villain you can't just dismiss as a woman scorned, just like the witch Parker originated.

Plus, like Green, Simon's French. So there's that.

(Aren't you impressed I didn't cast Vivien this time? I was tempted.)

Dwight Frye as Willie Loomis


...Yeah, maybe not my most original choice, but it would work so well. Let's return Willie to the John Karlen days when he was one of Dark Shadows' most complex characters, a sleazebag graverobber who ends up with a tortured conscience to end all tortured consciences as he becomes Barnabas's unwilling slave. The sinister nastiness that easily slides into hysterical panic, the sniveling pathos, all of that's embodied in Frye's multiple takes on the Renfield character type and in Willie.

Judith Anderson as Dr. Julia Hoffman


I know it's a stretch imagining her play a mysterious, shifty, intelligent, cultured, sinister, and obsessive mad scientist.

Ha, I'm hilarious.

Even with or maybe because of her dark, scheming edge, she tends to class up any movie she's in. And after the fiasco that was Julia's character in the new movie, let's give Julia back her classiness, shall we? And who among us hasn't longed to see Anderson play a mad scientist? Aaaaaand she plays frustrated unrequired love really well (see Rebecca and Laura).

She's perfect for Julia. She'd do Grayson Hall proud.

Tom Conway as Roger Collins


I'm being a good girl. I haven't cast Vivien Leigh, and I haven't cast George Sanders. But I have cast his brother.

Roger Collins is basically George Sanders a trifle more de-sexed. He's snooty, uppercrust, and looks down on everyone and his or her madre. Conway is a competent actor and he has all those qualities in abundance; on top of that, his voice and George's are practically identical, so yay more sex appeal!

He's also of course another Lewton favorite, starring as the lusty, unethical shrink in Cat People and as the Edward Rochester substitute in Zombie. 

Joan Bennett as Carolyn Stoddard


Now here's the kicker! So Joan Bennett played Elizabeth, the family matriarch, in the 1960s, right? Well, POW, in 1940 I'd have a blonde Joan Bennett as Liz's daughter, Carolyn! Mind-blowing, I tells ya!

She'd be about 30 in 1940, a drastic departure from Chloe Grace (still sounds wrong) Moretz's sullen 15-year-old in the new movie. I also **SPOILER** wouldn't make her a werewolf at the eleventh hour. That be bullshit.

Bennett's Carolyn would also probably diverge from Nancy Barrett's '60s Go-Go dancin' version. Bennett always drips with sophistication and high style; thus, instead of a perky spoiled princess with a hidden heart of gold, she'd be more the aloof, snobbish, high society queen with a hidden heart of gold. Can't you see her languishing uselessly around Collinwood, wearing pearls and slinky evening gowns, a haughty pout on her lips? I know I can.

Yet this opens up a problem I hadn't anticipated: I have no idea who to cast as Elizabeth.

? as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard

As played by Joan Bennett and Michelle Pfeiffer, Elizabeth is beautiful and dignified, coldly patrician. I've done my research, and there were very few actresses of the proper age still working in Hollywood at that time who would fit those qualities, sad to say. Hollywood moulded any woman still having the audacity to work past her 30s and 40s into either quirky old maid/spinster aunt character actors or crusty grand dames (Liz is a grand dame, but she's a sexy grand dame). Maybe Belle Mitchell? Maybe Clara Kimball Young (no)?

My dad suggested that since, hey, Elizabeth was basically a comeback role for Bennett, how about bring back a silent film maven who hadn't worked in a good long while? That would make sense.

So how about Theda Bara? Florence Turner (who was still working by that point, but mostly in bit parts)? Or, GASP! Evelyn Nesbit? My, once you examine the problem this way, the possibilities are boundless....



Darryl Hickman as David Collins


Even though I'm still smarting from some apparently immature and catty comments he made about Gene Tierney on the commentary track for Leave Her to Heaven, I guess if you're going to have a spooked, energetic kid in a 1940s movie, might as well go with him. Whatevs.


BONUS CHARACTERS!

Neither of these characters were in the Burton movie (well, actually...it's complicated!, eerie music, etc), but hey, anything's allowed in a magical Val Lewton alternate reality gothic wonderland:

Theresa Harris as Maggie Evans


(Boy I hate using this phrase, but) For his time, Lewton employed African-Americans in his movies more intelligently than many of his peers. Oh, they were still portrayed as servile, still unerringly gracious to their white bosses, still exotically mystical at times, still occasionally spouting sassy domestic sayings (quoth Ms. Harris in Cat People: "Don't nobody like apple fritters?").

Yet Lewton lets them converse and interact with others with common sense and dignity. No imposed dialect, no cloyingly childlike display of buffoonery. In fact, I Walked with a Zombie was surprisingly sensitive for the time; despite associating black people with mysticism, Lewton manages to purposely portray white pampered ignorance in a few scenes and how the black inhabitants of the island grin and bear such ignorance.

Above the fray is Theresa Harris, smart, beautiful, and magnetic. Lewton and Tourneaur obviously like her, and so do we. Again I cringe a little at the thought of her as Maggie Evans, the waitress. But then again, for someone as acute a performer as Harris, I imagine she'd be able to sneak in some of the race-consciousness from Zombie and give her Maggie more autonomy than worrying about the apple fritters (or chicken something, I can't remember what it was). Maybe she could play super sleuth, figure out what's up with Barnabas, and get into cahoots with Sheriff Patterson or Dave Woodward or whoever else would be there tracking Barn down.

Ann Carter as Sarah Collins


....Ohhhhhh wait she'd only be about four. Meh, oh well. I mean 1940 in a loose sort of way, more an approximate date than anything set in stone. Anyways, after watching Curse of the Cat People, Carter's my new favorite child actress. Yeah, I choked up a lot during that one, what of it? She's a very lonely Alice in Wonderland girl, and touchingly beautiful. She'd do wonderfully as the ghost of Barnabas's beloved little sister, the last remnant of his conscience.

Plus it's Boris Karloff with a child. There's nothing more adorable.

So long as they stay away from ponds.

*****

After casting this, I can't help but imagine how this would do as, say, a serial of twenty-five minute shorts set before A-movies. Y'know, kinda like very early General Hospital clips, or whatever hospital show it was? Dark Shadows is such a sprawling story, such an eclectic mix of characters, that most movie adaptations haven't quite succeeded in grasping what made it so compulsively watchable and easy to obsess over for all its grandiose awfulness. Perhaps these could be projects Lewton, Tourneur, et al could turn their fevered brains to when suffering creative blocks during production of their other movies.

Either way, I'd love to see Barnabas as a tortured yet brutal aristocrat who definitely is a vampire--but his attacks are shrouded in shadow, and like in Cat People, maybe the light could settle on his eyes, not his fangs.




19 comments:

  1. It's a pity this isn't included in the Val Lewton boxset -- looks like a great movie!

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    1. I know, right? Guess they're going to wait until the fervor from the new movie settles down before releasing it. Thank you for reading!

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  2. Karloff would be amazing as Barnabus! I think your other casting is spot-on too, though I've only seen the Burton movie, so I don't know if I'm the best judge. But I also love Judith Anderson and she would be awesome too!
    Here's my bungled recasting of Harry Potter:
    http://thegreatkh.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/the-great-recasting-blogathon-2012.html

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    1. Thank you so much, Margaret! And your delightful casting ain't bungled at all--I mean, c'mon, Christopher Lee.

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  3. I didn't know the Dark Shadows, but I like Val Lewton's 1940's horror films. You made good choices and it would be a must-see. For the role of Elizabeth, maybe you could include Mae Marsh (who was still working uncredited in the 1940's) or even Lillian Gish. How about?
    I'm also in the blogathon recasting The English Patient.
    Greetings,
    Le

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    1. How could I have forgotten Mae Marsh?! She would have been perfect (Lillian's maybe a wee bit more waifish than I envision Liz, but would still be fabulous).

      I really enjoyed your recasting of English Patient with Jean and Clark. Really original choices for the material, and it would work fantastically! Thanks for commenting!

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  4. I didn't know Dark Shadows before, but I like Val Lewton's 1940's horror films. It would be a must-see with your choices!
    For the role of Elizabeth, I was wondering, maybe Mae Marsh (who was still working uncredited in the 1940s) or even Lllian Gish.
    I'm also in the blogathon recasting The English Patient.
    Gretings,
    Le

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  5. The choice of Val Lewton is genius - but I dare say there would be less laughter and more shivers! I'd pay to see this one, for sure!!

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    1. LOTS of shivers. I mean, it's Boris Karloff as a vampire, right? Thanks for the feedback! Ah, if I only I could charge you to see this movie. Where's that time machine, anyhow? I could try to make that happen....

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  6. LOVE THIS! A Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneaur film starring a slew of regulars, sign me up!

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    1. Aw, thank you! I really, really need to perfect that way-back machine....

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  7. Wow, Laura!! You've done such a fantastic job - your recasting is so thorough!! So I've yet to see The Dark Shadows because I'm terrible when it comes to catching up on new films (not going to deny that I don't really mind much of the time, lol), but from what I know about this movie your casting seems to me to be spot on. Thanks so much for joining us!! :)

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    1. Well, thank you, Rianna, for the wonderful blogathon! Right up my alley. Burton's film is fun and interesting, but I still prefer the old-school original show. My post might have been a lot more influenced by that than the movie. Either way, though, I loves me that wacky horror soap opera! Thanks again for your comment and the blogathon!

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  8. Okay, I'm back again because I wanted to let you know I've tagged you for a blog award! http://franklymydear-blog.blogspot.com/2012/07/the-liebster-blog-award-reprise.html :)

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    1. Just saw that on your page! Thank you so much! Hopefully I'll post mine later today, but if not, expect it very soon!

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  9. I am totally with you on your Lewton love. And your casting choices. Any movie or series with a cast of Boris Karloff, Frances Dee, Simone Simon, Theresa Harris, and Judith Anderson is automatically in my good books. Anderson and Karloff would make quite the intriguing couple (I'm getting a kind of Sweeney Todd vibe there but much more restrained and as you say, classy).

    I'd like to comment more, but I'm afraid it would just amount to a lot of nodding along. So all I'll say is you hit this one out of the ballpark.

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    1. Oh, I'll bet you anything Burton fans have already made the Sweeney/Lovett connection in the new movie, seeing as Barn and Julia are played by the same actors as in Sweeney. Poor Bonham Carter never can nag Depp in her man's movies, can she?

      Thank you so much for your kind words, Rachel! I please to aim.

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  10. I'm late to this party, but: BRILLIANT!

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    1. Why, thanks a lot! Better late than never!

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