Review: Dark Shadows

Beginning in the 18th Century, Johnny Depp is Barnabas Collins, who was raised in a town in Maine that is named Collinsport and in a mansion named Collinwood. As an adult, he has an affair with maid Angelique (Eva Green), but is truly besotted with Josette (Aussie actress Bella Heathcote). When Angelique learns of this, the scorned woman, also a witch, kills both Barnabas’ parents and Josette, and places a vampiric curse on Barnabas himself. Not satisfied at leaving it there, she also arranges for the townsfolk to capture and bury Barnabas in a coffin, and curses his family for good measure. Chicks, man. We then cut to 1972 as Bella Heathcote reappears as young Victoria, set to be the governess to young David Collins (Gulliver McGrath) at Collinwood. The estate has been left to deteriorate under matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), who is also mother to hippie teen Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz). Meanwhile, Barnabas’ coffin is unearthed in an excavation, and Barnabas comes back to life and is bemused and befuddled by the modern world around him. He is also convinced that Victoria is really his lost love Josette. Angelique, meanwhile, is still alive and a powerful figure in town as the head of a competing company with the Collins family company. Helena Bonham-Carter plays Dr. Hoffman, a psychiatrist, the live-in shrink of Elizabeth’s brother Roger (played by Jonny Lee Miller). Roger, by the way, is David’s not very attentive father. Jackie Earle Haley turns up as the nutty caretaker of the estate, and Christopher Lee plays an aging fisherman.

The trailer for this 2012 Tim Burton film version of the vampire soap opera (which from what I can gather, was somewhat of an ancestor of “Buffy” or “Angel”) was so bad it had me thinking there was no way the film could be any good. In fact, it looked like a bad “Tim Burton’s Greatest Hits”, with particular focus given to “Edward Scissorhands” and “Beetlejuice”. Well, it turns out I was wrong. Not only does the film forge its own identity for the most part (as much as a remake can), but it’s not a bad film at all. It’s a long way from Burton’s best (“Batman”, “Beetlejuice”, “Sleepy Hollow”, “Mars Attacks”, “Ed Wood”), and I wouldn’t even call it a good film,’s watchable and a whole lot better than I was anticipating.

The opening is interesting and gorgeous, and the music score is wonderfully Elfman-esque. That is because it’s by Danny Elfman (“Batman”, “Beetlejuice”, “Mars Attacks”) himself, of course. The film, shot by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (“Amelie”, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”) looks like a work of Gothic art at times, despite there being a Green Screen-esque disconnect between the actors and backgrounds, to my eyes at least. I mistakenly thought the film was thusly a 3D film, but have since learned that is not the case. Still, there was always something slightly fake that I couldn’t quite get around, no matter how stunning the images sometimes were.

The story is an intriguing one that reminded me a little of Mario Bava’s “The Whip and the Body”, both being macabre, darkly romantic films. Meanwhile, at other times, it felt like Burton was very much influenced by the horror films of Hammer Studios, the kinds of horror films I too grew up enjoying. The ending also gave me Edgar Allen Poe vibes (as did Depp’s sunglasses, suggesting Burton is a fan of the Roger Corman flick “The Tomb of Ligeia”- an excellent movie). All very fine sources to take inspiration from.

I was surprised that for the most part, Burton and co were playing this straight, albeit campy. Sure, there are funny moments, but they are a lot more understated than you might be expecting (The trailers were seriously fraudulent). To me, that’s a positive thing, not generally being a fan of fish-out-of-water comedy. Depp gets a huge laugh early on when he comes across McDonald’s famous golden arch and proclaims ‘Mephistopheles!’. There’s another brilliant bit where he comes across The Carpenters (of all things) playing the wonderful ‘Top of the World’ on TV and Depp cries out ‘Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!’. For some reason, Depp referring to Moretz having ‘birthing hips’ at the age of 15 cracked me up too, and his poetic interpretation of Steve Miller Band’s ‘The Joker’ is just as funny. The profundity he brings to the tagline for “Love Story” was quite simply comic genius. The comedy is a lot more droll and a lot less goofy than I had anticipated. Depp has also perfected his English accent, but I must say that at no point in the film did the specific English accent Depp chose sound even remotely Liverpudlian. You only need to listen to John, Paul, George, or Ringo to hear the obvious difference. As for his performance, this is the best work he has done since the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” film, and he lends a strange, tragic dignity to the part that is somewhere in between Vincent Price and Christopher Lee, with Max Schreck’s hand gestures. Some will say he’s not eccentric enough, but I’m glad Depp has been able to rein it in, as I was getting a bit sick of his schtick by now.

One thing I really liked about the film was that Depp doesn’t like being a vampire. I was expecting him to be a villain, instead of a somewhat eccentric, tragic romantic who hates what he has become. Would I have preferred a straight, tragic romantic horror version of this? Yes, but that would likely turn into “Twilight”, and I certainly wouldn’t want that (I’m surprised it hasn’t at least been given the “Twilight” or “Vampire Diaries” treatment for TV by now. I’m not saying it would be a good idea, just an obvious one). Depp sharing a scene with the great Christopher Lee in this darkly romantic horror context is priceless, even if 90 year-old Lee was about four decades too old to be a sea captain at the time (Then again, this is the same film that suggests you can become a vampire merely by being cursed to be one, which I haven’t heard of before). The performances by an hilarious Helena Bonham-Carter, and especially Eva Green are worth noting. It’s the best work of Green’s thus far unremarkable career, giving off real Barbara Steele vibes. But is the sex scene between her and Depp considered bestiality, necrophilia, or both? She’s perfect, at any rate (as is Depp’s line after their tryst: ‘That was...regrettable’). Unfortunately, in one of the film’s biggest mistakes, neither Green nor Bonham-Carter is in the film nearly enough, whilst the frankly extraneous characters played by Michelle Pfeiffer, Jonny Lee Miller, and the two kids are four characters too many, or perhaps the Pfeiffer and Bonham-Carter characters should’ve been combined. Jackie Earle Haley is also not in the film enough, and is weird as hell when on screen, in a perfect bit of casting in essentially the Dwight Frye role. Why was he singing along to ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’? I don’t know, and I’m not sure I want to. Great song, too. The other big mistake is in regards to the Bella Heathcote character. She is meant to be the other half of the film’s tragic romance angle (or a descendant), but is off-screen for so much of the film that this tragic romance doesn’t quite come off as anything more than surface-level. Heathcote’s wavering accent is also an issue, albeit a lesser one. Meanwhile, a facially immobile Michelle Pfeiffer (Botox is seriously not your friend, “Ladyhawke”!) essentially repeats her caricatured performance from “Hairspray” and I didn’t much care for it the first time. Combined with the pancake makeup and her not terribly impressive acting skills, she seems frozen. By the way, I’m pretty sure Chloe Grace Moretz is a vampire. I saw it in a movie once.

Burton captures the 70s quite well, albeit with his own twist. However, he does cock-up a couple of times with his musical choices. Alice Cooper, who appears on screen in an impromptu performance, plays ‘No More Mr. Nice Guy’. The film is set in 1972, the song, however, was released in 1973. Oopsy. I’m pretty sure Steve Miller Band’s ‘The Joker’ (the source of one of the film’s funniest gags) came out in ’73 as well. The Cooper scene, however, is otherwise perfect. While I’m nitpicking, I also have to point out that the pancake makeup given to pretty much all of the actors makes every one of them look like a vampire, not just Depp. Deliberate or not, it annoyed me, just as it annoyed me in the “Twilight” films.

Tim Burton had a chance to really let his Hammer fantasies run wild here, ala “Sleepy Hollow”, and whilst he hasn’t quite provided the dopey, quirky re-tread of “Beetlejuice” that the trailers seemed to suggest, the end result is only mildly entertaining. There are some wonderful moments of both Gothic imagery and droll humour, however. The screenplay is by Seth Grahame-Smith (writer of such arthouse favourites as “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” and “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”), from a story by the same and John August (Burton’s “Big Fish”, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, and “The Corpse Bride”), based on the cult TV series.

Rating: C+


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