Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Dark Shadows

DARK SHADOWS (Tim Burton, 2012)

Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), the dashing heir to the family fishing empire, picks the wrong woman to spurn in DARK SHADOWS.  Angelique (Eva Green), a servant at the Collins manor, reacts badly to his decision to break off their romance.  As a witch, she’s more than capable of getting her revenge.  She causes the deaths of Barnabas’ parents and his beloved Josette (Bella Heathcote).  As if that isn’t punishment enough, Angelique turns him into a vampire and then sees to it that he is locked in a buried coffin.

Almost two hundred years later--1972, to be exact--Barnabas is accidentally freed.  He returns to the coastal town of Collinsport, Maine and finds it to be much different than what he knew.  The changes aren’t just technological and societal.  The family estate is in disrepair and inhabited by eight strangers, as is apt to happen when one is gone for nearly two centuries.  Now calling Collinwood Manor home are matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her daughter Carolyn (ChloĆ« Grace Moretz), Elizabeth’s brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller) and his son David (Gulliver McGrath), the boy’s psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), groundskeeper Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley), maid Mrs. Johnson (Ray Shirley), and newly arrived governess Victoria Winters (Heathcote), who bears a marked resemblance to the love of Barnabas’ lifetime.

Elizabeth is the only one who knows Barnabas’ secrets, so in exchange for being permitted to stay at Collinwood, he promises not to indulge his vampiric impulses on anyone living there.  Barnabas then settles in to restore the family business to its former glory only to realize that the competition is headed by the very woman who cursed him so many years ago.  She’s going by the name Angel now and is a pillar of the community.  Worst of all, her desire to call Barnabas hers has not abated.

From 1966 to 1971 the soap opera DARK SHADOWS ran for more than 1200 episodes.  With so much material to choose from and only 113 minutes to fill, director Tim Burton’s film is best described as being based on the TV show rather than a remake of it, although screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith does his best to shove as much plot in as possible.  DARK SHADOWS has a lot to establish and does so with clarity, but it feels like half of the film is prologue.  (Ironically, the opening scenes in the mid-1700s are efficient in setting up Barnabas and his eternal dilemma.)  Once everything is finally laid out, the narrative struggles to gain momentum.  
DARK SHADOWS gets stuck in neutral because of the uncertainty as to what kind of a film it wants to be.  In keeping with its soap opera roots, it overflows with doomed romanticism and heightened drama.  Long stretches pass in which events and relationships are treated as being deadly serious.  Not enough is invested in these characters, though, to feel the big emotional scale DARK SHADOWS wishes to pull off.

Complicating matters is that the film is also intended to be a comedy.  Burton appears more at ease in acknowledging the ridiculous elements of the story and simply having fun with the supernatural twists and turns.  Depp handles his role with composure and sufficient restraint, making him a humorously refined but still lethal bloodsucker.  Sinking her teeth into the villain role, Green charges her scenes with Depp with sex, danger, and playfulness that the rest of the film resists.  For all of the good these two leads do, the jokes in DARK SHADOWS mostly consist of easy targets related to Barnabas’ puzzlement by modernity.  Director and screenwriter settle for arriving at the mildly amusing when the obvious destination is camp territory.  

The production and art design and Colleen Atwood’s costumes help Burton create a familiar but no less dazzling gloomy world.  Visual effects are put to spectacular use when Green’s skin looks like cracked eggshell.  Burton has lavished a lot of attention on the surface and it shows.  No matter how good it looks, DARK SHADOWS is missing a soul and a heart despite no lack of wanting them.     

Grade: C-

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