Monday, May 28, 2012



- I know, I know ... everyone seems to be growing tired of the Tim Burton "brand." And part of that is likely because Tim Burton used to be less a brand, more a visionary. But, I would argue that people are being way too harsh on Burton of late. Sweeney Todd, released only a few years ago, was in my mind one of the director's best films to date. Yes, Burton had a notable creative misfire with Alice In Wonderland ... but I think that the man has produced enough great films that he deserves a little slack. And I also think this: any director who manages to create a big-budget piece of complete insanity like DARK SHADOWS deserves some admiration. I mean, this is Dark Shadows we're talking about - the strange, loopy 70's horror-soap-opera that I knew from the reruns on the Syfy channel that used to air during the day. I remember sick days in high school when I'd catch an episode or two and wonder how a show like this ever made it on the air in the first place.

What Burton tried with his film adaptation was to create a movie that mimics the pacing and storytelling style of a TV soap opera, though here the drawn-out revelations are hyper-compressed into two hours. Still, the movie has the meandering feel of a soap, with dozens of characters, all sorts of hinted-at subplots, and a general cheesiness that replicates the slightly left-of-center, almost dreamlike quality of the TV show. Of course, DS was no ordinary soap. Although stylistically it wasn't that different from a General Hospital or Days of Our Lives, the subject matter was what set it apart. Because what other soap was about an ancient vampire risen from the grave? Now, the original soap surely fell squarely into the realm of mostly-unintentional camp, but Burton tries for deliberately campy with plenty of winks and nods at the audience.

And that is where DARK SHADOWS gets into some trouble. The tone is pretty all-over-the-place, with an odd mix of out-and-out comedy, B-movie campiness, and even some soapy melodrama thrown in. Plus, this being a big Summer movie and all, Burton throws in some big, CGI-driven action, and other assorted f/x-heavy set-pieces for good measure. Whereas something like Mars Attacks was probably a bit more pure of an homage, Dark Shadows feels like it may be trying to be all things to all people - not the least of which includes the Studio overlords. This showed in the movie's marketing, which seemed similarly schizo.

That said, give some credit to Johnny Depp - he's fantastic as hundreds-year-old vampire Barnabus Collins. I really enjoyed Depp's performance in the film. Yes, we've seen him do the white-face goth thing before, but this is different ... the stately, lordly, prideful Barnabus is a unique and worthy character in the Depp cannon. Depp delivers his lines with pitch-perfect timing and appropriate gravitas and gusto, and it's a lot of fun just watching him relish the role and make it his own.

The rest of the cast is similarly good. Eva Green chews the scenery with curvaceous aplomb as Depp's witchy rival Angelique. Chloe Moretz once again proves that she is one of the best young talents in the biz, a scene-stealer as Depp's modern-day descendant. Helena Bonham-Carter is a lot of fun as the family doctor, who finds herself smitten with the revived and revitalized Barnabus. Michelle Pfeifer is also good as the Collins family matriarch, and Jackie Earle Haley is appropriately creepy as the Collins family manservant.

There are also two cameo roles in the movie that I loved. One is from the legendary Christopher Lee as an old sea captain. The other is from iconic shock-rocker Alice Cooper, playing himself. I give bonus points to anything with Alice Cooper in it, as should you.

The cast is excellent, Tim Burton's trademark knack for visual flair is on full-display (with gorgeously gothic scenery) ... so, what keeps Dark Shadows from being a great flick? I talked about tone, and again, that really puts a damper on things, along with the film's fairly limp plot. There just isn't a lot to sink one's teeth into, pun intended. The movie tells the tale of the noble vampire Barnabus' return to civilization after having been magically imprisoned for hundreds of years - buried alive by a jealous witch seeking vengeance after Barnabus gave his affections to another. Now, Barnabus finds himself a fish-out-of-water in the 1970's - both out-of-place yet ironically not *that* out of place among the garish fashions, rock n' roll pop-culture, and general weirdness of the time. Barnabus has re-emerged and reunited with the present-day Collins clan, at their ancestral manor Collinswood. The family has come upon hard times, however. The family fishing business is floundering, and a rival company (headed by Barnabus' immortal nemesis, Angelique) is helping to sink them. So Barnabus must not only navigate the 1970's, but also restore his family name and put an end to Angelique's scheming. To further complicate things, the Collins' new nanny seems to be the reincarnation of Barnabus' true love, Victoria. Once again, Angelique seeks to squash Barnabus' chances at happiness.

There's A LOT going on in the film, but only bits and pieces of it are particularly interesting. I think that having the movie take place in the 70's turned out to be an odd choice - I get that it's likely done in homage to the series, but it seems like an unnecessary layer in a movie that's already overstuffed. The movie just has a hard time keeping up its momentum. And again, it all comes back to tone. When you veer from fish-out-of-water comedy to cheesy soap-operatics to gothic horror so quickly, it's just hard to latch onto much if anything. And it means that certain parts of the film fall flat, because they feel out of left field. The love story between Barnabus and Victoria, for example, never really resonates - in particular in its modern-day incarnation where Barnabus falls for Victoria's 70's counterpart Josette. The speed with which they fall for each other feels odd and even semi-creepy, especially given how young Josette seems. And there's little to no spark between Depp and Bella Heathcoate, who plays Victoria and Josette (especially as compared to the much more heated chemistry between Depp and Green). Similarly, the whole rival fishing companies storyline seems all too mundane and dreary for this movie, and a lot of wind is taken out of the sails whenever it becomes a focus. Finally, there's one totally absurd twist towards the movie's end, involving Chloe Moretz's character, that is pretty eye-roll-inducing.

So yeah, DARK SHADOWS is a bit of a mess of a movie. But I enjoyed it nonetheless. Partly because it was so shamelessly weird. And partly because it does have some glimmers of greatness - via Johnny Depp's fantastic performance, and at the times when the movie strikes a particular goth-camp tone that is its sweet spot. Is this Burton's best? Certainly not. But it's also far too early to say that this master of the macabre has lost his mojo.

My Grade: B

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