Written by: John August & Seth Grahame-Smith (screenplay), Dan Curtis (TV series)
Directed by: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer and Eva Green
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“My name is Barnabas Collins. Two centuries ago, I made Collinwood my home, until a jealous witch cursed me, condemning me to the shadows, for all time. "
Sometimes, artists with a distinctive style begin to buy into their own bullshit, so to speak, and they can end up embracing this to almost parodic levels. Something like 2012 is knowingly, unabashedly the most Roland Emmerich-ish movie ever. However, sometimes, these auteurs just ease into and mail in their shtick, and I’d like to enter Dark Shadows as evidence. An update of the cult soap opera favorite, it represents the eighth collaboration between Tim Burton and Johnny Depp and serves notice that these two have settled into a dull association where each is fine to go through the motions and pretend that nothing is wrong.
An opening prologue (which is eventually rendered redundant since everyone discusses its events for the next hour) is narrated by Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), who was once just an English lad who moved to America with his family in the 18th century; he eventually grew up to be the heir to a fishing empire in Maine, where he also pissed off his mistress, Angelique (Eva Green), and she killed his true love and cursed him with vampirism and had him locked away. Two centuries later, his beloved Collingwood manor has fallen into disrepair and is inhabited by his bizarre, dysfunctional descendants, whose search for a governess has ended with the arrival of Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote).
The immediate post-prologue stuff actually holds out some hope that Burton is stepping outside of his comfort zone; whereas the first ten minutes are full of gnarled trees and moonlight and look to have been inspired by leftover Sleepy Hollow storyboards, the introduction to 1972 is surprisingly low-key and altogether conventional, and Burton nails Collinsport’s dusky, pallid New England vibe. Of course, Collingwood itself manages to be a very Burton-eseque enclave: ornate, overwrought, and with a hint of gothic baroque. Its inhabitants prove to be a little odd, especially the ten year old David (Gulliver McGrath) who has visions of his dead mother. Even still, Burton isn’t exactly overpowering us with his usual quirk, and, even though it’s a little cobwebby and stuffy, Dark Shadows manages to be unusually subdued, and you expect Depp’s Collins to eventually return and infuse it with some life.
Only he doesn’t, perhaps through no fault of his own. Make no mistake--he’s in typical oddball Depp mode, affecting some kind of weird combination of Count Chocula and Jack Sparrow, and his stodgy demeanor allows for some chuckle-worthy quips here and there, but he never really becomes anything more than a fish out of water. Instead, he and the rest of the cast is betrayed by a scatterbrained script that never finds a focus and leaves all of its ingredients undercooked (or, in some cases, completely uncooked). My only experience with the original series extends to its more infamous reputation, so I can’t be sure if Depp and Burton are attempting to pay lip service to its various storylines here, but it certainly feels like they’ve attempted to shove an entire year’s worth of storylines into 110 minutes. Angelique’s feud with Barnabas and his family is the obvious through-line, but it’s surrounded by various sub-plots, including Barnabas’s courtship of Victoria* (which encompasses all of two scenes). As a result, the film often feels like a series of vignettes that are a voiceover away from just acting as promo reels. “Next week on Dark Shadows, Barnabas has a randy encounter with Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham-Carter); meanwhile, Roger (Johnny Lee Miller) gets frisky with guests at the family ball--with special musical guest, Alice Cooper!” And so on and so forth. At some points, it gets fairly ridiculous--there are late-movie exposition dumps, off-screen events, and the like, all of which feel like they’ve been copped from a soap opera.
The only problem? Burton doesn’t go big and broad enough and never brings a manic, self-aware energy to match the silliness of the proceedings. This was probably the last thing I would have expected, especially since the film is being sold as a bit of a spoof, as if Depp and Burton (out of fondness) had taken the unintentional kitsch of the original series and turned it inside-out by re-imagining it as high camp. Hints of that movie occasionally peek through; there are times when the film is obviously trying to be funny, but often to little success--this is the type of film that features not one, not two, but three jokes about Alice Cooper being mistaken as a woman due to his name. Other attempts a humor fall similarly flat and barely register because the film is otherwise so ponderous and lifeless. By the time we’ve reached the ridiculous climax, it’s too little, too late, as Dark Shadows has been crushed under the weight of its aimless plot and tonal inconsistencies.
You can’t pin that on Eva Green, though, who is easily the bright spot that definitely got the memo about Dark Shadows being a farce. Commanding the screen with the force of a buxom banshee, she constantly flashes a demented grin (if Harley Quinn ever shows up in a Batman movie, they needn’t even hold auditions) and dares you to take your eyes off of her. She’s so seductive that Barnabas’s intentional avoidance of her sexual entendres might be the funniest joke the film has to offer. Supporting her and Depp are a fine assortment of actors, all of whom are appropriately dolled up in Burton’s clothes. Heathcote especially has a face that was made for the director--soft, doe-eyed, and perfectly framed by her swooping 70s bangs, she has an easily perceptible sweetness that unfortunately never gets enough screen time. Ditto for the rest of her co-stars: Chloe Moretz (playing the Collins wild child) has a sneer permanently affixed to her face, Johnny Lee Miller gets a couple of lines, Michelle Pfeiffer comes and goes as the script pleases, Jackie Earle Haley is sneakily fun and lends himself well to the director’s quirk, while Bonham Carter dutifully appears gussied-up with orange hair, presumably due to some vow she made with Burton.
There are other things to enjoy about Dark Shadows--the 70s setting is effortlessly realized, the period soundtrack features some great tracks from Cooper, The Moody Blues, and T-Rex, and Christopher Lee pops in for a cute cameo that puts him on the business end of a vampire’s charm for once. When the film does go full-on Burton in terms of aesthetics, it’s gorgeously well-wrought, and looks exactly how you’d expect a Tim Burton film to look. And that’s part of the problem; at the end of the day, Dark Shadows is just a Tim Burton menagerie of pretty faces in pretty sets, hastily arranged and fronted by his prize-piece in Depp, whose obligatory turn can’t keep the film from feeling auto-piloted. Appropriately enough, Dark Shadows is a film somewhat defined by a relationship gone sour, and I’m left wondering who fills the Angelique’s naggy, clingy shoes in the Depp/Burton relationship. Something is certainly amiss, and, either way, it may be time for these two to at least enter counseling and rediscover the magic that sparked their collaboration in the first place. Regardless, maybe it’s time for a break, and its not us--it’s them. Rent it!
*Of course, Victoria ends up reminding Barnabas of his dead lover from the prologue; between this and the transplanting to 1972, it turns out that Dark Shadows is just the chalky, whitey version of Blacula. Maybe that's the best joke here.
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