And I don't mean "Oh, I knew the character was going to die!" kind of knowing what's going to happen. I mean.
"Everything is going great for the character! Everyone is happy. Now something bad will happen. There'll be a falling out. Then the hero will have to redeem everyone by defeating the villain. Then we have a happy ending."
Does that sound familiar? It should, because it's part of a larger formulaic narrative that I think needs must die. And not in the sense that I'm Othello and I mistakenly think Desdemona has got to go. But like...I'm Johnny Rico and this Narrative Formula is the Brain Bug.
Director: Tim Burton
Creature of the night: Johnny Depp
Nice voice: Bella Heathcote
Cat woman: Michelle Pfeiffer
Holy hell did I not think she was good in this: Chloe Grace Moretz
Of course she has orange hair: Helena Bonham Carter
WHERE HAS SHE BEEN???????: Eva Green
You were Rorschach?: Jackie Earle Haley
How did he get in this movie?: Jonny Lee Miller
Cool name, kid will grow up to be awesome, I'm calling it now: Gulliver McGrath
Sure, welcome: Christopher Lee
Alice Cooper: makes sense
Think about movies like:
The Rum Diary
Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle
The 40-Year-Old Virgin
Little Big League
What's going on in these movies?
A character is in Situation A, which usually isn't a great situation. Aladdin is poor. Billy Madison is a rich man-child that does nothing with himself. Steve Carell is a virgin. The kid in Sky High doesn't have a super power yet and isn't popular. Justin Timberlake doesn't have a lot of time and if you run out of time you die. Bobby Boucher is a swamp-land man-child. Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) is turned into a vampire and buried underground and his family is cursed.
Then a Series of Key Events is followed by Something Good Happening resulting in The Ideal Life. Aladdin meets the princess and ends up with a lamp that summons a genie. Bill Madison goes back to school and falls in love with his teacher. Steve Carell makes friends who help him find the confidence to start dating a woman, Catherine Keener. The kid in Sky High discovers his super power and the most popular girl in school likes him. Timberlake is given a century's worth of time, which he then gambles into like...unlimited amount of time. Bobby Boucher turns out to be really good at football from all his pent-up rage and becomes a national sensation. Barnabas is freed after 200 years and reconnects with his remaining family and begins making them prosperous again.
Then The Villain Finally Acts and Ruins Everything Reducing the Character Back to Situation A. Aladdin alienates all of his friends, Jafar steals the lamp and cancels out the magic of Aladdin's fake identity Prince Ali, revealing Aladdin to the princess and the sultan as nothing more than a peasant. Steve Carell can't be honest about being a virgin and alienates Keener, becomes an ugly version of himself. The kid in Sky High ditches all of his friends then makes the popular girl mad, so he's in an even worse situation than he began because now no one likes him. Timberlake's time is taken from him by the police and his accomplice, Amanda Seyfried, loses her time to the Minutemen (stupidly named gangsters), thus putting Timberlake back in Situation A. The coach of the team Bobby Boucher used to be the water boy for, and the rival of Boucher's current coach, reveals Bobby never passed an exam so isn't allowed to play football, and everyone who had liked Bobby now thinks he's awful, so Bobby goes back to Situation A. Barnabas spurns Angelique (Eva Green), again, and she puts him in a coffin, again, and promises to destroy his family, again, and begins too.
Then The Hero Finds Redemption. Aladdin, the clever street rat, outwits Jafar and Jafar becomes a genie trapped inside a lamp--the princess and the sultan are saved. Steve Carell finds the courage to tell Keener he is a virgin, and she is relieved, because she had suddenly decided he was a sexual deviant (the exact opposite of what he truly is). The kid in Sky High saves everyone in school, and his parents, from the Villain/popular girl, and reconnects with his friends. Timberlake and Seyfried begin stealing time from banks and distributing it amongst the poor, and an earlier situation where Timberlake couldn't reach his mother IN TIME TO SAVE HER is repeated almost verbatim except THIS TIME TIMBERLAKE SAVES HER. Bobby passes the test he needs to pass, and gets permission from his mom, and is able to go play fooseball/football and help the Mud Dogs beat the VILLAINOUS TEAM and everyone loves him. Barnabas is freed from the coffin (almost immediately) and is able to interrupt Angelique's plan, then is able to defeat Angelique, with help from the rest of his family, living and dead, and then an earlier situation where Barnabas COULDN'T SAVE THE WOMAN HE LOVED is repeated almost verbatim except THIS TIME HE DOES SAVE HER!
This is, essentially, a melodramatic shortening of Campbell's famous Monomyth/Heroic Journey. If this Narrative Formula has a specific name, I don't know what it is. But I'm going to call it the Dramatic Journey.
The Heroic Journey, when done well, results in Star Wars, The Matrix, The Lion King, Blade Runner. Among other films.
The Dramatic Journey also has good films: Aladdin, Wedding Crashers, Mean Girls, Avatar, Billy Madison, 40-year-old Virgin.
The flaw with almost EVERY Dramatic Journey movie I can think of: the Reversion to Situation A. With the build-up to The Ideal Life, WE KNOW EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BECOME BAD. And then it does. And THEN WE KNOW EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BECOME GOOD AGAIN.
In my analysis of In Time I described the Dramatic Journey as 5 phases.
Phase 1: Hero has nothing
Phase 2: Hero has everything
Phase 3: Everything is taken away
Phase 4: By returning to how everything was the Hero finds confidence/strength/determination
Phase 5: Hero achieves victory with newfound confidence/strength/determination
Most Dramatic Journey films spend most of their running time in Phases 1 and 2. Phase 3 occurs about 75% into the movie. And Phases 4 and 5 wrap up the movie with climax and denouement.
In Time fascinated me because Phases 4 and 5 started much earlier than other films and ran for much longer.
Dark Shadows tricked me because Phases 1 and 2 lasted for a long long long time. I never saw the Dramatic Journey coming. I wasn't even thinking about it. And then...boom. The return to the coffin. And then the burning of the Collins's factory. And I knew exactly what was going to happen.
Think of Wedding Crashers, the wedding crashing scene is awesome, the time at the cottage is awesome, then Wilson and Vaughn are found out. Raise your hand if your favorite part is Wilson being depressed and suicidal?
Mean Girls. I think the movie is lots of fun until Lohan becomes a mean girl and everyone hates her. Then she wallows for a bit, then there's the reclamation scene, and prom, and is the last 20 minutes nearly as interesting or hilarious as what came before?
There are reasons why these films can overcome their structuring flaws. And these usually have to do with spectacle.
In Avatar we get to see a GIANT GIANT GIANT tree fall in a movie that is considered one of the most visually accomplished movies of all-time. It also leads to a big dragon and a large battle. Yes, the structuring was obvious, but the details were, I thought, fascinating.
Billy Madison's regression involves the return of a penguin-person and an academic decathlon. I want to see these things.
Wedding Crashers brings in Will Ferrell and delivers the line: "MA! THE MEATLOAF! FUCK!"
The other way to avoid Dramatic Journey structuring obviousness: duration of phases. Avatar basks in each phase. In Time spends more time in Phases 4 and 5 than other movies. Most films of the Dramatic ilk hide out in Phases 1 and 2, which are normally unpredictable in how they will unfold. What happens when Edward Scissorhands goes to live with a regular family and everyone knows about him? How does Billy Heywood manager the Minnesota Twins? Who is Aladdin, what's he like (awesome, that's what he's like)? Isn't Van Wilder the man? What is The Mask capable of?!!? What's going to happen when a vampire played by Johnny Depp wakes up after 200 years, how's he interact with the modern world?
Dramatic Journey's aren't un-enjoyable, obviously (I like about every movie I named). They're just predictable. And, I think at this point, too predictable.
If many successful films DO NOT use the Dramatic Journey narrative structure, the question becomes: WHY DO FILMS USE THE DRAMATIC JOURNEY NARRATIVE?
Why does regression fascinate us so much? Especially regression as a hurdle to overcome?
At the end of the day, all of these plots come down to the same thing: the protagonist avoids a confrontation, benefits despite avoiding the confrontation, then the avoidance comes back to ruin the protagonist, then the protagonist finally engages and overcomes the confrontation.
Why are we obsessed with this taste of victory, loss of victory, reclamation of victory?
Why does this pattern of regression repeat again and again and again in film after film after film? Why is it a generic narrative constantly evoked?
There are sociological reasonings dealing with the idea of "getting knocked down and getting back up" or "this structure shows true growth of character". I don't think the reason matters. I really don't care WHY the Dramatic Journey is used. I care about eradicating it.
Which is why I'm going to say this: The Dramatic Journey is a terrible way to structure a movie. And every movie I listed, and all the Dramatic Journey movies I did not list, would be better films if they did not use the Dramatic Journey.
The Dramatic Journey is the IMPERFECT form of the Heroic Journey. And the Heroic Journey is a method of what I call Escalation Narrative. The opposite of Escalation Narrative is a Cascade Narrative. Escalation Narratives are films that build to success: Bloodsport, Predator, Romeo Must Die, Gladiator, The Count of Monte Cristo, Groundhog Day. Cascade Narratives involve erosion or combustion or explosion: Apocalypse Now, Phantom of the Opera, Titanic, There Will Be Blood.
I think a film that oscillates between Escalation and Cascade loses power. Either you go one way or you go the other. Building an inevitable sense of victory or an inevitable sense of doom.
That's not to say you can't have bad moments in an Escalation Narrative or happy moments in a Cascade Narrative. You need these things. I just don't think you need them in such a predictable pattern. Who has ever said "Yeah, the movie was really good because I knew exactly what was going to happen!"? (Go back through reviews of Avatar and the biggest criticism is predictable plot).
In conclusion, I think Dark Shadows could have been a good movie if it didn't conclude by lapsing into a predictable and cliche pattern.
Someone needs to throw out this cookie-cutter.
Did I Like It:
Yes, but not the last 20 minutes. Had it not had the stupid regression points I would have thought it fine.
I thought Eva Green was awesome.
I was actually impressed with Tim Burton for the first time in a long time.
The movie is actually sort of...really sad. If Eva Green DID really love Johnny Depp, he rejected her purely on the subjective reason that she was incapable of love, that she wanted to possess him. Yeah, she reacted terribly, killing way too many people. But it's still sort of...tragic. She gives Barnabas her heart. And Barnabas refuses to acknowledge any responsibility in the matter. I think this confrontation of self would have been much more interesting a climax than what actually happened.
What It's Good For:
-some silly laughter
-fans of the show
-introducing you to Bella Heathcote
-ruining Moretz's streak of being stellar
-seeing a cool mansion
-probably not as campy as people expect
-it's typical Tim Burton
-it's typical Johnny Depp in a Burton picture
-nothing really happens
% Character / % Actor's personality
-Movies involving funny vampires: Love at First Bite; Fright Night; Buffy, the Vampire Slayer; Vampire in Brooklyn
-Green: Casino Royale
-Depp and Burton: Edward Scissorhands; Ed Wood; Sleepy Hollow; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; The Corpse Bride; Sweeney Todd; Alice in Wonderland
-Moretz: Kick-Ass; Let Me In; Hugo
-Cool houses in movies: click this cool link