Monday, October 15, 2012

"Dark Shadows" -- Doesn't Quite Work as Comedy or Horror

I considered writing an open letter to Johnny Depp in lieu of actually watching Dark Shadows because I was so reluctant to watch another Burton-Depp collaboration. After forcing myself to sit down and watch "Dark Shadows" I've decided I should write an open letter and a review because Johnny Depp is doing himself no favors by continuing his penchant for heavy make-up and flamboyant mannerisms in place of traditional movie roles. (I also say this with the knowledge that "The Lone Ranger" is due to hit theaters next July.)

The original "Dark Shadows" was a bit before my time, airing in the late 60's and early 70's, so I can't say whether Tim Burton's version is true to the spirit of the original. The show was described as a soap opera and if I were to guess I'd say that Burton probably latched on to the overdramatized nature of that genre and fused it with his trademark style of weird and slightly horrific filmmaking. And in the early sequences of the film it seemed like it might work- but unfortunately the initial promise was short lived.

Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) grows up wealthy and spoiled as a founding member of the prominent fishery-owning Collins family of Collinsport Maine in the late 1700's. His penchant for seducing the housemaids catches up with him after he rejects Angelique (Eva Green) in favor of Josette (Bella Heathcote) and in a fit of rage Angelique, a witch, murders Josette and Collins' parents and turns Barnabas into a vampire. After Angelique reveals Barnabas' secret he is captured and buried alive by a horde of angry villagers until he is found and released almost 200 years later into 1970's America.

The first thing Barnabas does, after dining on a few construction workers, is to return to his family home. Once he arrives he is surprised to see the house in almost complete disrepair and the family fortune gone after another fishery has stolen all their customers--and the owner of the other business is none other than his old nemesis Angelique. Barnabas then reveals his true nature to the ever practical family matriarch, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, (Michelle Pfeiffer) who agrees to overlook his vampirism in return for his help in restoring the family name.

"Dark Shadows" does have some compelling moments in the opening sequences of the film. Barnabas' entry into the disco era is predictably discombobulating and comical and Burton clearly has a good time poking fun at the goofiness of the time. Burton contrasts Depp's Gothic appearance with 70's music, hippies and badminton, among other things, and it's sometimes funny in a campy way. But it's the kind of schtick that quickly wears itself out because it isn't balanced well against the eerier, slightly horrific aspects of the story.

Also, there are a lot of story lines that Burton attempts to integrate into the film: Angelique's obsession with Barnabas; ghostly apparitions; a moody teenager (a wasted Chloe Moretz); extreme family dysfunction that includes a live-in psychiatrist (Helena Bonham Carter); and a secretive nanny who looks just like Barnabas' long-lost love Josette. The busyness of the plot is where I think Burton really tries to capture the essence of the soap-opera feel from the orignal series. And, like a serialized television show that features many congruent story lines, many of them aren't given enough time to really make them flourish. In particular I was disappointed that the ghost story introduced at the beginning of the film was basically dropped through the middle and only slightly remembered at the end. Burton spends most of his time on the obsession Angelique has with Barnabas and sometimes it succeeds, but mostly it drifts so far into such over-the-top silliness that it becomes distracting and almost boring.

The one thing "Dark Shadows" has going for it is an excellent cast. Michelle Pfeiffer only gets better with age as an actress and her portrayal of Elizabeth is the very picture of the practical obliviousness one needs to overlook Depp's oddball vampire. Eva Green generally makes an excellent femme fatale, though her American accent is very distracting as it hovers somewhere between Southern belle and Bronx truck driver. I'm pretty sure she was going for the kind of woman you see in tradition noir films like "The Maltese Falcon" but the accent seems to get away from her more often than not. Helena Bonam Carter is surprisingly normal for a Burton film and plays a fairly traditional drunk but she's good at it and, like the other women, is quite pretty despite the padded belly added to her costume. Chloe Moretz is the perfect actress to play the disaffected teenager but you hardly see her; and the way her character is developed is strange and unnecessary. Depp is.... well, like he always is these days: in full make up and prancing around with a new set of exaggerated idiosyncrasies.

"Dark Shadows" is a fun film in some ways. But the biggest flaw is that it can't seem to decide what it wants to be. It hovers somewhere between comedy and horror without really landing on either genre. It's certainly campy but also really slow throughout the middle and entirely too much time is spent on the mundane aspects of Barnabus' attempts to save the family while letting the more interesting aspects of the story go unfinished. If Burton had reigned in some of the goofier elements and developed the more horrific, and interesting, parts of the plot it might be a film worth mentioning. Regrettably it never hits its stride and ends up being a mostly forgettable addition to the Burton-Depp library.


Charles Gramlich said...

When I saw the previews I knew it wasn't going to be my kind of movie.

Budd said...

I am so over Burton, especially if Depp is in the movie as well. I think there must be some kind of weird love triangle between burton, his wife, and depp. yuck! I am also generally over depp, especially in burton flick. I think I won't go see Lone Ranger because of him.

Hope you plan on participating in my Scare Me Blogfest on Halloween.

Bob Milne said...

That's a shame. I had high hopes for this. I'll generally watch anything from Burton-Depp, but never did get to the theatre to see it.

I actually came to Dark Shadows through the 90s revamp (Ben Cross made an excellent Barnabas), so I was entirely open to another revamp . . . but I was hoping for more horror, and less camp/comedy.

SQT said...

@Charles- Me too. I basically watched it for review. I hoped I like it more than I expected, but wasn't surprised when I didn't.

@Budd- I'm not quite that cynical. A lot of directors work with the same actors over and over. I think they think of them as their "muse" and that seems to be the case with Depp-Burton-Bonham Carter. Though Burton has always put his girlfriends in his films, so that's pretty typical too. But I am so over Depp in costume- I may not watch "The Lone Ranger" for the same reason. If I do, it'll probably only be to review and likely mock it.

@Bob- I am curious about the original "Dark Shadows." Something tells me it's probably much better than this film.

Maria said...

Recently one of the networks ran a marathon of the Dark Shadows redo with Ben Cross and I really enjoyed it - it was dark, eerie and somewhat addictive - it was easy to see why it had a following. I've been so disappointed in the Depp/Burton collaborations lately that I stayed away from this one. Don't think I'll be watching it at all - thanks for sacrificing yourself for the you do decide to send a letter let us

SQT said...

Oh I'll post the letter here-- just for fun. Depp no doubt has better things to do than read little blogs like mine.

ben268 said...

I wanted to see it, but just never got around to it, sounds like I didn't miss out on much.