Dark Shadows is one of the most confounding big-budget movies of recent years. When Tim Burton (and his muse, Johnny Depp, one of the film's producers as well as its star) announced that their next project would be a revisit to the ABC gothic afternoon soap of the 1960s, the assumption was that they'd be making a romantic supernatural thriller. Then when the movie's trailer was unveiled a few weeks ago, it appeared to promise a slapstick parody. The film itself is both and neither, an extravaganza that unsuccessfully tries to juggle half a dozen tones at once.
Although some of the publicity for the new movie treats Shadows like a curiosity of the time, it was quite a success in its day, running 5 years on ABC and spawning 2 feature films and 2 attempted TV reboots, as well as plenty of merchandising. (Here's a fun factoid: in the busted 2005 pilot version, the role of daughter Carolyn--Chloe Grace Moretz in Burton's film--was played by Jessica Chastain, years before she became Hollywood's new It Girl.) All of the versions center on vampire Barnabas Collins (Depp), who lost his true love Josette (Bella Heathcote) in the late 18th century, was cursed by the evil witch Angelique (Eva Green) to be one of the undead, and who now must spend his endless life pining for his love and feeling really bad about having to drink blood. In a way, Barnabas was a precursor to all the guilty vampire lovers who followed, from Lestat to Angel, Bill Compton to the Salvatore brothers to that Twilight guy, so bringing him back to cinematic life wasn't an unpromising idea.
The wrinkle Burton's version adds is that Barnabas has been imprisoned by Angelique in his coffin for almost 200 years when he's unwittingly freed in 1972 by a construction crew, so he has to come to terms with all the changes in the world over the past 2 centuries. This is where most of the supposed humor comes in, with gags familiar from any time-travel comedy (what is this electricity you speak of? and a McDonald's?) and/or any modern movie set in the 70s (lava lamps! hippies! Alice Cooper!). Angelique is also still around in her third century, so furious about Barnabas not returning her affections that she's devoted herself all that time to destroying the Collins family.
The family that's left inhabits the old, now decrepit, Collinwood Mansion. They're headed by matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), who endures her unruly teen daughter Carolyn (Moretz), dissipate brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller) and Roger's troubled son David (Gulliver McGrath), who's being treated by shrink Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter). Shortly before Barnabas makes his reappearance, David gets a new governess, Victoria Winters (Heathcote), who is in some way the reincarnation of Barnabas' beloved Josette. When Barnabas shows up wearing 18th century duds, a near-Kabuki complexion and passing off his antiquated speaking style as British, he sets to work bringing the family back to its former glory and vanquishing Angelique.
While Burton, Depp and their screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith retain the central characters and some of the storylines from the original, the aspect of the show that they've seized on in an almost fetishistic way is the pacing and acting style of old-time daytime drama, so their film (especially the first half) is filled with lengthy, wordy scenes where actors stare intently at each other while emoting deadpan dialogue. The stylization is sort of fascinating in a David Lynchian way for a while, but since there's nothing really behind it, it doesn't take long to become a bore. The constant lurching from these kinds of expository scenes to wacky comedy (when Angelique attempts to seduce Barnabas, they have a wall-scratching, furniture-destroying slapstick battle) to dark comic violence feels abrupt and unsatisfying.
The acting, too, is stylized within an inch of its life. Depp is always fun to watch, but unlike in his best films with Burton, here he seems to be letting his make-up and elaborate conversational style do his acting for him. Also, putting aside the 200 years Barnabas has on Victoria, the fact that Depp himself seems to be about 30 years older than Heathcote (even when he's pre-vampire) makes her an uncomfortable leading lady for him. He matches up better with Green, who has the luxury of playing a clear-cut villainess all the way through and seems at least to be having some fun. Pfeiffer bears the worst of the flat soapy dialogue, and can't ever seem to emerge from it. Moretz has some bright moments as the outcast teen (Burton can be relied upon for meaty outcast parts), until she gets a particularly idiotic plot-twist to handle near the end.
Dark Shadows doesn't work very well dramatically, but it's gorgeous to watch. Bruno Delbonnel's photography, lush and desaturated, has an artistry the dialogue lacks, and Rich Heinrichs has designed a splendid Collinwood. Danny Elfman's score is effectively gothic, with a few nice nods to the original TV show theme. It would have been nice if the film had resisted its cliched blow-everything-up final showdown, but that seems to be a requirement for summer movies.
There are so few directors able to command major Hollywood funding for films that have personal vision that one wants to cheer the very idea of Tim Burton, whose movies don't look or feel like anyone else's. When they fail, though, they can feel strained and affected, and that's the fate of Dark Shadows For all the devotion he and his colleagues show to the source material, they haven't found a way to pass along their passion to the audience.
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