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Movie Review: Dark Shadows

By (May 14, 2012) One Comment

For our movie-lovers: a guest-posting from John Anderson, proprietor of the movie-blog “Hello, Mr. Anderson”!

Edward Scissorhands. Ed Wood. Sleepy Hollow. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Corpse Bride. Sweeny Todd. Alice in Wonderland. If there are any cinematic partnerships that have stood the test of time, one of the most popular in this modern age is that of director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp. Dating back to 1990, the pair have worked together on seven films, both reconstructing old tales and creating entirely new ones. For that reason they are among Hollywood’s celebrated pairings, and so of course the biggest draw of their eighth and latest effort, Dark Shadows, is not the film’s origins as a cult classic supernatural soap opera from over 40 years ago, but the continued partnership of these two artists.

Both men (along with so-star Michelle Pfeiffer) were fans of the daytime soap, which ran from 1966 until its cost-cutting cancellation in 1971. Far different from any soap airing at that time, Dark Shadows appealed mainly to teens, both for its supernatural premise and eventually the ratings-gold introduction of reluctant vampire protagonist Barnabas Collins, whose personality (as played by actor Jonathan Frid) Depp emulates in the theatrical remake. Sure, you could ask why anyone thought this franchise needed to be revisited (attempts to revive the show on television were thwarted in both 1991 and 2004); with Burton and Depp leading the charge however, there’s a good chance most fans wouldn’t give a thought as to what they are doing, so long as they’re the ones doing it.

Nothing mysterious about THIS group ... nothing at all!

In the new film, the late 1700’s Collins family leaves their home in Liverpool, England to bring industry to the coast of Maine. After founding the village of Collinsport and building a fishing industry like none ever seen, the family’s legacy was all but assured. But young scion Barnabas Collins (Depp) made the mistake of romancing and rejecting housemaid Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), who just happened to be a witch of some power. She places a curse on the Collins family, killing Barnabas’ parents and cursing his lovers, finally forcing Barnabas himself to transform into a vampire. Soon after, she convinces the townsfolk to capture him and bury him in a coffin, so that he may never be seen again. That fate is changed in 1972, when the coffin is accidentally discovered and Barnabas escapes, reuniting with his dishonored descendants and promising to return the family to their former glory. Angelique is still around, however, and when she learns that he has escaped from his grave, she promises to renew her feud with the Collins name and simultaneously do what she never could two centuries prior: win the heart of Barnabas Collins.

Maybe blondes DO have more fun ...


Sadly, this was a Burton/Depp collaboration that might have benefitted from a bit more time to prepare a cohesive storyline. There’s far more happening here than the resurrection and romancing of Barnabas Collins, as multiple story arcs interact in a haphazard manner that defies narrative clarity. Between the arrival of new governess Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), the discovery of Barnabas’ vampiric nature by Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) and her subsequent attempts to cure him of his curse, young David Collins (Gulliver McGrath) apparently communicating with the spirit of his dead mother, and Angelique’s attempts to ultimately destroy the family, you get the feeling that Burton is juggling too many revolving stories, with the result being absolutely no cohesion whatsoever. Burton does know how to shoot scenes for their looks, and his ability to create mood from scratch is unparalleled by anyone else in Hollywood. Then again, that is what makes him a great producer, not necessarily a great director.

This leaves the film’s comedic elements on their own. That wouldn’t be a problem, were the film at all humorous. Instead, the screenplay by rising star Seth Grahame-Smith doesn’t actually inspire much in the way of mirth, and as Burton has gone on record to say that he didn’t consider Dark Shadows a comedy, it doesn’t appear as though he fully intended to go down that route. So why include the scene of Barnabas brushing his teeth in a mirror that doesn’t show his reflection? Why show his problems getting comfortable in the beds of the manor, only to have him finally at peace when resting in a coffin? Why set him on fire in a humorous fashion when he accidentally steps into the sunlight? For that matter, why set the film in 1972, the year after the original show went off the air? Obviously Burton thought there weren’t enough hippies in cinema and decided to reverse that trend. Honestly, the thing might have worked better had the Collins family been relocated to our current era, as seeing Barnabas marvel at cell phones and computers would have been just as amusing as when he does it with telephone booths and lava lamps, with the added benefit of being more connected to the average viewer.

The movie is redeemed partially by the quality of the cast, most of whom are supremely talented veterans with no good reason to not be doing something else with their collective time. Depp is as always at the center of attention, and his talent for melding fully into his character is what makes this film as much fun as it is. Michelle Pfeiffer proves she’s still got the talent to stick around, providing stability and strength as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, the reclusive head of the household (2012 looks to be a big year for Pfeiffer, as she’s also set to star in the promising drama People Like Us, making you wonder just where she has been hiding the past few years). Eva Green, with possibly the most intense eyes in modern cinema, dazzles as the sultry and evil Angelique. While her character is sadly about as poorly-conceived as a villainess can get (cursing someone over a broken heart is so last century), Green really goes out of her way to make Angelique more than just a bad mood gone terribly awry. Sadly, the numerous talents of Helena Bonham Carter and Jackie Earle Haley are lost to the script’s foibles; their characters don’t get nearly as much attention as they should. Finally, Chloe Grace Moretz is pitch perfect as young Carolyn Stoddard, Elizabeth’s moody wild-child daughter. The Kick Ass and Hugo star continues to impress, even if this film fails to fully use her substantial abilities. Only Heathcoate is a real disappointment, though one has to speculate whether that is due to a lack of talent, or simply not nearly enough to do.

At one point Carolyn asks the mysterious Barnabas “Are you stoned?” One has to imagine that Moretz is not speaking to Depp at this point, but the audience, telling us that we must be using a hallucinatory substance if we are ever to think that this Dark Shadows is worth an iota of our time.

Many who see this movie in the coming week will be doing so hoping to see the best that Burton and Depp have to offer. Unfortunately, while the actor fulfills his half of the deal, Burton is nowhere near the artist he was when he was creating the surreal worlds of Edward Scissorhands or his two Batman films. I fail to be surprised at this, as Burton hasn’t made a good film since 2003’s Big Fish; he can still stage a scene, but the man hasn’t told a decent tale in so very long. If you really can’t go without your Burton/Depp cocktail, you’d be better off visiting your local rental store than bothering with a non-comedy like Dark Shadows. While the filmmakers seemed to like the original show, and it sure seems like these guys had a lot of fun putting all this together, that doesn’t guarantee anything close to quality time spent at the movies.

"and THAT's how I helped destroy a beloved cult classic!"

John C. Anderson is a writer and film enthusiast living in Boston. You can check out the regularly updated Hello, Mr. Anderson at latestissue.blogspot.com