14 May 2012


It wouldn't be fair to see Tim Burton's two Batman movies as the beginning of his current "one for them, one for me" mode of directing. Although Batman shows the steady hand of producers who don't want to risk too much, in comparison to the gorgeous weirdness of Batman Returns, they're both good movies. Now, it seems that for every Big Fish or Sweeney Todd, we get a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or an Alice in Wonderland. Dark Shadows marks the point where Burton's personal projects have started to pong a little.

The movie is based on a 1970s soap opera with supernatural elements, that eventually turned into a full-blown science fiction/fantasy show with vampires and time travel, of which Burton and star Johnny Depp were both huge fans, in their youth. Depp plays Barnabas Collins, a fishing magnate who spurns his besotted witch maid, and finds himself cursed to be a vampire. On top of that, she has an angry mob bury him alive, to remain in the ground for two centuries. He's discovered in 1972, and finds that the Collins dynasty has fallen upon hard times, resolving to use his longevity and guile to restore his family name.

No matter what the consensus would have you believe, there are things in Dark Shadows that really work; things that make its overall failure all the more frustrating. For one thing, the cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel is absolutely exquisite, following his stellar work on Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. His saturated visuals perfectly match Burton's aesthetic, and I really hope they work together again. 

Secondly, Johnny Depp hasn't played a more enjoyable character since Sweeney Todd, and had the film managed to focus on Barnabas for the duration, it might have been a hit. Hell, if it managed to focus on anything for the duration, that would have been a start. In addition to Depp's performance, there are rock solid performances from Eva Green and Michelle Pfieffer, both of whom play strong, but somewhat sad women.

Green makes an absolutely delicious villain, as the witchy Angelique, so cruel and twisted by something as sympathetic as unrequited love. Her motivations are always clear, and appearing to have lived as an upstanding member of the community while cursing the Collinses for almost two hundred years, she makes quite a fascinating antagonist. Pfieffer seems to bear the brunt of Angelique's wrath as the Collins' matriarch, Elizabeth. It's a better role than she got in, say, New Year's Eve, but the character's glamour is clearly waning, which makes her rivalry with the pristine Angelique all the more interesting.

The setup is right out of the soap opera, and some of the twists and turns along the way come from the property's televisual roots, too. Therein lies the rub. Depp, Green and Pfieffer all do a terrific job of amping up the camp in their performances, but the overall tone is jarring, thanks to what seems like a first-draft script from screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith. Burton's hand in the film's awkwardness is also clear, but the real, indisputable problems with the film lie in the abrupt tonal changes, (which works in TV soaps, but not in a feature) and a whole bunch of truly awful dialogue (which doesn't work anywhere).

It's not to say that I wanted it to be more like 21 Jump Street, which affectionately ribbed the series it was based on, and was highly successful as an out-and-out comedy. What I'm saying is that Dark Shadows courts both possible versions- the fish-out-of-water comedy and the gothic horror melodrama- without any real grace or charisma. Some of the gags that made me laugh in the trailers also appear in the final film, but most of the others are tittersome at best, and out of place alongside the deadpan fantasy violence and gore. 

Between the "can they really get away with that at a 12A?" content of The Hunger Games and The Avengers, Dark Shadows arrives as a 12A certificate film that "contains moderate violence, horror, gore, sex references and soft drug use." It's got just about everything, including my pick for Most Random And Inconsequential Blow Job In A Motion Picture this year. If you're still on-board with the film through its slower, more tonally bizarre sections, then never fear- there's a late development involving one of the younger Collinses that might as well serve as Burton appearing on-screen and flipping the bird at you for your patience.

Like Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows is a steaming hot mess, with the money piled on top of it suffocating most of its good intentions. Most who have disliked it have cited awful trailers, but I thought this looked quite funny, and fun. It's better than Alice, or Charlie, or Planet of the Apes, because it's a labour of love, but it feels like Burton is too close to the source material. It boasts enjoyable performances from the cast, especially Depp and Green, and some superb visuals, but it lacks the vim and vigour required to make its wholesale soap tropes work for feature length.

Dark Shadows is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Dark Shadows, why not share your comments below? This movie would be at least 10% better if Burton's frequent collaborator Alan Rickman had been cast in the place of Jonny Lee Miller. Nothing against Miller, but Rickman makes everything better.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.


Anonymous said...

Definitely has its moments of fun, but they all start to go away by the last act when the tone shifts from goofy comedy to campy melodrama and takes all of the steam out of its story. Very lazy direction by Burton but definitely not terrible. Good review Mark.

Ro said...

Mark - hit the nail on the head!
The actors are pretty good but how underdeveloped are some of the side-stories for the other characters like the little boy or the reincarnated love interest. The writer (or Burton) clearly tried to jam in as much from the tv series that they possibly could. Did not actually make for a good film though. Maybe they should have rebooted it on TV. Imagine the viewing numbers they would get - Depp and Burton on HBO or something!
I also think its time Depp and Burton spent some time apart. It just gets all too same-y after this many collaborations.