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Dark Shadows (2012)

May 13, 2012

 

written by: John August and Seth Grahame-Smith

produced by: Richard D. Zanuck, Graham King, Johnny Depp, Christi Dembrowski & David Kennedy

directed by: Tim Burton

rating: PG-13 for comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking

runtime: 113 min.

U.S. release date: May 11, 2012

 

“Dark Shadows” marks the eighth cinematic collaboration between director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp  and it’s time for these two to be given a time out. It’s not that they’ve made bad films together, it’s just that we haven’t seen anything all that unique or compelling from them since “Edward Scissorhands” and “Ed Wood”, their two best films. Since then, the duo have adapted established material to the big-screen, created by the likes of Washington Irving, Roald Dahl, and Lewis Carroll (the best of them being “Sleepy Hollow”), and dabbled in animation together – using a recognizable (and recycled) gothic and/or offbeat atmosphere. Now, they’ve decided to inject that same vibe, with a generous helping of goofiness and cheese, to an update of a cult favorite American daytime soap from the late 60s/early 70s. Fans of that show may cry foul, while the undeterred loyal fanbase of the Burton/Depp films (are they even out there still?) will show up regardless.

While I’ve grown tired of seeing these inseparable talents reunite again and again, for some reason I found myself feeling slightly optimistic for their new film. The more I saw the trailers, the more I saw this as possibly a solid return to the best these filmmaking BFFs have to offer. Maybe there could be an interesting examination here of the macabre dynamic of the film’s family, as portrayed by proven actors inhabiting this ensemble cast. Unfortunately, the trailers and TV spots for “Dark Shadows” showcased almost all of the funny bits (as they often do) and poorly marketed the film as some kind of slapstick horror. Fortunately, most of the performers here rise above Burton’s bi-polar tone as well as the uneven and derivative screenplay they’ve been given.

 

 

The story opens in 1760, as we watch the Collins family migrate from Liverpool to a quite seaport town in Maine. They stake their claim in the fishing business and make such a name for themselves that the community is called Collinsport. It becomes clear that this part of the movie is clearly a prologue, summarizing and catching us up to where we’re supposed to go, without taking any time to establish or develop any characters that we know will play an important part later on in the story. Never a good sign.

We see Joshua and Naomi Collins, with their young son Barnabas, watch as an enormous  mansion is being built on a cliff overlooking the sea. The audience confidently determines that this will be the elaborate estate where the family will reside for a quite some time. Barnabas (Johnny Depp) grows into a seemingly spoiled playboy, who makes the mistake of having what he considers a fling with a housemaid, but then devotes his heart to the beautiful Josette (a serene and engaging, Bella Heathcote). Bad move, Barnabas. It turns out the housemaid he jilted is a witch named Angelique Bouchard (wonderfully played by Eva Green) who won’t be ignored. Rather than getting all Glenn Close on him and cooking his pet rabbit, Angelique offs his parents and his love and turns him into a pasty white vampire. To cap off her rage, Angelique buries Barnabas alive in a chained coffin in the woods and sets off to destroy the Collins legacy. She does so over the next couple hundred years (looking fabulous, I might add) by becoming a powerful fishing tycoon, obliterating the once-thriving Collins business.

196 years later, Barnabas is accidentally unearthed to a world with paved roads and giant glowing yellow double arches. Right here we know that this is where we’ll see Depp’s Barnabas become less of a tragic character to one that plays up the comedic vampire-out-of-time bit. Seeing Barnabas getting acclimated to 1972 Collinsport is quite funny. For the most part, there’s no dialogue, just Depp in ghoulish make-up and perfectly-maintained emo bangs, responding to the bizarre behavior (to him at least) of the locals.

 

 

Instinctively, Barnabas returns to Collinwood Manor, now dilapidated and overseen by groundskeeper named Willie Loomis (a great Jackie Earle Haley), making for a hilarious first encounter as Barnabas tries to work his hypnotic powers on the drunkard. Maybe the spell worked on me, because I unexpectedly started taking a shine to Depp’s antics. Watching his Barnabas deal with his new-old surroundings,  I was reminded how great the actor is at physical comedy and emoting responses in a charming dialogue-free manner. We’ve seen him dispense the bugged-eyes and arched brows before, but there’s no doubt it’s fun seeing him commit to such a reliable arsenal.

When Barnabas meets his awkwardly dysfunctional descendants who reside in his property- we find more hilarity, yet that’s also where the script really starts to suffer. We’re introduced to very intriguing characters that deserve more attention than screenwriters, Seth Graham-Smith (author of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which we will see adapted to the bi-screen next month, with Burton as producer) and John August (another frequent Burton collaborator), allow, but that’s all we get. These characters are introduced, there’s some funny bits interacting with Depp’s Barnabas – but that’s it. That’s because this is a Johnny Depp film and we’re made to believe that his fish-out-water storyline is enough for us. Not necessarily.

Sure, it’s funny to see Barnabas encounter the vernacular and pop culture influences of the 70s. In fact, the setting is actually one of the reasons I was optimistic about this film. The idea of a proper British gentleman vampire (with Depp balancing camp and horror, while emphasizing his articulation with extreme care) and having to deal with both his craving for blood and his re-acclimation into society was intriguing to me. After we see Barnabas stare down a little troll doll, discover shag carpeting, Scooby-Doo and The Carpenters, it feels like these comic snippets and montages cheat the audience out a chance to get to know the rest of the family.

That’s too bad, because the family members are the most interesting here – especially the females. I wanted to know more about Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer, gracefully re-asserting her star status), the strong family matriarch and her rebellious teen, Carolyn (a mesmerizing, Lolitaesque Chloë Grace Moretz) who apparently has undeveloped secrets of her own. There’s also Elizabeth’s sleazy brother, Roger Collins ( a bland Johnny Lee Miller, a role which should’ve gone to Bill Hader or David Hyde Pierce), whose troubled pre-teen son, David (Gulliver McGrath) sees ghost (we don’t know why) and is being cared for by Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter, Burton’s real-life squeeze) a dubious boozing shrink. All characters worthy of further development in their own right, but Burton serves them up on this elusive Lazy Susan that leaves them as vague caricatures despite some fine work by Pfeiffer and Moretz.

 

 

And then there’s Victoria Winters (who looks identical to Josette, also played by Heathcote), the new governess who arrives just before Barnabas returns from his two century nap. He is immediately smitten by her likeness to his former flame, but can’t quite figure out what to do with his feelings or how to win her over. What is immediately noticeable about Heathcote is how much she resembles many of the actresses Burton has cast in his previous films. There’s a certain look – wide-eyed with a long neck and porcelain pale skin – that he goes for, which was found in Christina Ricci, Lisa Marie (his former wife) and even in the title character in “Corpse Bride”. The fact that Heathcote is a relative unknown has a certain draw to it, but her being utterly Burtonesque was kind of distracting. It didn’t help any that her character had this mysterious backstory that was told in rushed flashbacks or that Burton and his screenwriters forced an unearned attraction to Barnabas.

Although I never watched an episode of the ABC television program (which ran from 1966 to 1971), I’ve always been aware of that creepy-looking guy played by Canadian actor Jonathan Frid (who has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo here), who recently died. I would eventually learn he played a character named Barnabas Collins, but it was only recently that I learned he was a vampire. Somehow that interested me less, but I found potential in focusing on this bizarre family, especially noticing that they could’ve been much more interesting and developed than they were in this Burton film. Apparently, they were TV’s first family soap dynasty – long before the Ewings or the Carringtons would dominate that niche.

Both my ignorance to the series and my slight interest in yet another Burton/Depp endeavor probably helped my relative enjoyment of Burton’s “Dark Shadows”.  But the elements that were completely unnecessary and weak, such as a cameo by Alice Cooper and the bloated CGI ending   can’t be erased. At least there are some amusing and committed performances that had me chuckling and entertained. Green’s presence is the most memorable, with her strange mix of sensuality and alien-like leering that drive’s Angelique’s bizarre pursuit of a man who could care less. In a film that tries too hard to be frightful and funny, it’s unexpected that its talented cast delivers where its director falters.

NOTE: It’s ridiculous that this film is being shown in IMAX theaters – don’t bother.

 

 

 

RATING: **1/2

 

 

A wonderfully moody Mondo poster created by artist Ghostco a.k.a. Matthew Woodson

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. seti73 permalink
    May 16, 2012 5:29 pm

    HA!! I just posted a similar thought as my Facebook status this morning. Here’s what I posted…

    “Is anyone else tired of the Johnny Depp/Helena Bonham Carter/Tim Burton lovefest? Unless I get a free pass, I’m probably going to wait until Dark Shadows comes to cable…as in, HBO. Or even Netflix. I mean, I love all three of those cats, but I guess their bizarre love triangle is getting a little old to me. I want to see Tim work with some newer talent…

    …truthfully, I want to see Depp back to doing more serious roles… Like Blow, Secret Window, Public Enemies… The “Pirates” movies are nice, but in the last few, he seems to have become a caricature of himself. And I want to see Burton direct some different talent… I think he’s overused Bonham Carter and Depp…”

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      May 17, 2012 2:52 pm

      Yeah, I hear ya – I would love to see him reteam with Michael Keaton!

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