Dark Shadows Review
Tim Burton + Johnny Depp + Danny Elfman + Helena Bonham Carter = yet more spooky, ooky, oddball antics dropped into the kooky cauldron and served up in a gothic stew.
Hmmm … it’s a recipe that we’ve become very accustomed to over the years, and some would say that new ingredients are necessary if we want something a little, um, tastier and more satisfying. And I’d be inclined to agree with them.
That predictable line-up suggests that we’ve seen it all before, and certainly there is nothing in Dark Shadows, their latest joint snuggle in the limbo-land of Tim Burton’s absinthe-laced imagination that seems fresh or original.
On paper, having the quirky maestro of eccentric macabre take on Dan Curtis’ long-running supernatural soap opera of resurrected vampires, witchcraft, small-town rivalries and loves, dark secrets and insidious familial curses would seem like the perfect bunk-up. Burton has always adored and championed his outsiders and his dysfunctional clans, and his penchant for the eerily avant-garde and the sugary spellbinding seems to know no bounds. But Curtis, who was undoubtedly the grand wizard of fantastical US television for a decade or so – with the movies and series of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, the Jack Palance version of Dracula, well-heeled literary adaptations of The Turn of the Screw, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and, my favourite of all, The Curse of the Black Widow (and just why the hell is that outlandish thriller still not available on home video?????) to back this up as one helluva consistent and imaginative run – had created a huge, sprawling occult epic that had leviathan plot-lines and characters developed over five years. His show commenced in 1966 and gained a couple of movie spin-offs under his guiding hand, and was even revisited in 1991 with Ben Cross taking on the lead role of the loyal and determined Collinwood patriarch, and reluctant vampire, Barnabas Collins, made famous by the terrific original performance from Jonathan Frid who came into the show a year in and took its ratings through the belfry.
To condense this maelstrom of the uncanny down into a sub-two-hour movie for audiences who, to be quite frank, probably haven’t even heard of the original show, is a task fraught with commercial danger. But then there’s his on-screen muse Johnny Depp assuming yet another wacky panto character from the fringes of reality to draw the punters in. And there’s always the appeal of Burton’s skewed humour and funked-up visual appreciation of the gothic and the darkly fabulous. Surely, this is just a walk in the graveyard for someone so well-versed in the art of the comically diabolical?
Sadly, Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows is a squandered opportunity, a confused, uneven and disjointed mess of a film that just doesn’t know what it wants to be … or even why it’s bothering in the first place.
Unsurprisingly, it has all the hallmarks of cult fixation. There is the wonderful production design, gorgeous costumes from Colleen Atwood and ghoulishly cool makeup, a collage of interesting special effects and the now ubiquitous cameo from the seemingly eternal Christopher Lee, and a strain of acidic wit running through it that pitches the man-out-of-time of the vamp from two hundred years before accidentally freed into the perplexing world of 1972 and all of its free-love, drugs and peace-mongering.
With a bravura and immensely stylish mini-movie prologue that reveals Depp’s Barnabas Collins moving with his pioneering family from a smoggy Liverpool to the New World and setting up a fishing township in Maine circa 1760. As he grows and takes control of the little empire, presiding over things in a palatial mansion, he falls in love with Bella Heathcote’s Josette, which doesn’t sit too well with Eva Green’s chambermaid-cum-witch, Angelique, who also has the hots for him. Working her black magical ways she takes revenge for his spurning of her and compels Josette to hurl herself from the cliffs on to the rocks below. Understandably distraught at this, Barnabas howls to the heavens and flings himself after her … only to rise, unbroken from the surf-lashed rocks and discover, as his teeth and nails elongate, that the other part of Angelique’s curse was to turn him into a vampire. Unable to staunch his unholy thirst, Barnabas soon finds that Angelique has another surprise in store for him, as a torch-wielding mob of classical yore storms his mansion and captures him. Sealing him in a coffin with chains, the poor don’t-wanna-be bloodsucker is then condemned to an eternity trapped in a box in the cold, cold ground.
Flash forward to 1972, the conflict of Flower Power and American involvement in Vietnam, the new Mephistopheles of MacDonalds, blood-bubbling lava-lamps and Scooby-Doo on the TV, and we meet young Victoria (also played by Heathcote) as she arrives at the dilapidated Collinwood house to take a job as a governess for the descendents of Barnabas. But no sooner has she unpacked her things than a familiar looking spirit informs that “He is coming …” and, quicker than a bat up a blood-pipe, the old master has been inadvertently freed from his casket by a gang of workers on the nightshift. And, boy, has he worked up a thirst over the last couple hundred years.
Returning to the fold through the “curious terrain” of this modern world, Barnabas quickly asserts his authority over the household and, after learning that his old nemesis of Angelique is mysteriously still around and thriving on the fishing business that she has stolen from the Collins Family, determines to take back their rightful place at the top of the food-chain.
But his problems aren’t just with Angelique – he now has a houseful of disenfranchised neophytes and emotional hang-ups to deal with.
Like the TV show, this is a soap-opera … just with vampires and witches and curses. But where Curtis’ groundbreaker was new and unique, ushering-in the likes of the modern-day vampire even before Hammer revived their favourite Count in the swinging Chelsea of 1972 (that year again, Burton must have been paying attention). But since then, we’ve had Fright Nights and Lost Boys and Near Darks and Blades on the big screen, and True Bloods and Vampire Diaries and Brit monsters Being Human to address the complicated issues of partying all night and sleeping all day. So, Burton runs the risk of coming across as old hat although, to be fair, that’s sort of the point of his distillation of Dark Shadows – and the film is definitely at its best when observing Depp’s old hipster trying to make sense of a new-look town. But this just won’t be enough for most people who are either going to want more japery, or more artery for their money. As curious and fanciful and screwy as this misadventure is, it is also quite, quite stilted and apt to inspire more yawns than shudders.
With a final act that rushes to meet a roaring crescendo of hellish good versus evil, it is a case of too little too late to save this Frankenstein-like patchwork quilt of horror in-jokes and creature-feature references.
Depp just seems to leap into each new caricature that comes along with all the dressing-up enthusiasm of TV’s Mr. Ben. Another film, another freakish character to transform himself with. I like him immensely though, and seeing him step into the out-of-fashion shoes of Barnabas Collins is a doozy. Looking like a cross between Peter Lorre and Max Shreck, he cuts the perfect dash along the tightrope between the high camp and the aristocratic undead. He relishes the role, but then this isn’t much of a stretch for him either. He manages to be sinister and clown-like, tragedian and buffoon. You can’t help but laugh at his attempts to find a comfortable resting place during the day, or his reflection-less fang-brushing. Gotta take care of them, they’re his grown-up ones. Lots of exchanges result in those patented Jack Sparrow expressions, a sudden blow-job from Bonham Carter’s alcoholic live-in psychotherapist making his eyes widen more than ours at its sheer placement in a 12A. He’s also quite decent at decimating human banquets – his rude-awakening an early highlight of mass snatch ‘n’ bite carnage. His ability to be funny, camp and sexy at the same time is something he seems hell-bent to put to the test with each successive fantasy role. His Mad Hatter still perhaps the ultimate shifting of the goal-posts. But once again he nails it with appreciable if unfathomable insight.
He rises from his coffin, or packing case, or whatever he can find and crawls down windows like Chris Sarandon’s yuppie neck-biter in Fright Night, or Gary Oldman’s gravity-defying former impaler in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but he is careful enough to reference both Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee with that spidery-hand groping around the casket-lid. He also supplies plenty of angst and brooding melancholia, yet with all the confusion as to the meandering plot and its distinct lack of momentum, we don’t share any empathy with his love-torn plight at all. Thus, much of the dramatic weight of Depp’s work is for nothing.
Eva Green, the defiantly uber-sexy Eva Green, is on fine form as the sultry she-bitch-witch who hates Barnabas but can’t keep her nimble claws off him either. She struts through the film with badass sass to spare and vamps it up in her own inimitable way, yet with so little to play with, a lack of either devilish tactics or henchmen hardly instilling any fear of what she might do next, she becomes less of a villain and more of just another humdrum character – something this movie has far too many of – with nothing substantial at actually do. And she doesn’t suit blonde hair, either!
Both Green and Johnny Depp are well worth seeing, as they always are. But both have become the lynchpins around which woefully misguided productions have been clumsily adhered. Pirates of the Caribbean 3 and 4 were turds of unfeasibly large proportions, despite Depp being consistently entertaining. And Green was the only thing worth seeing, and who genuinely seemed to have any degree of passion for the project in the ill-fated and thankfully axed Camelot TV show of 2011.
As Elizabeth Collins, Michelle Pfeiffer is absolutely wasted. Given to merely presiding glumly at the head of the dinner-table or draping herself in pure Hollywood diva tradition at the top of the house centre-piece of an ornate flight of stairs, she is like the guest star wheeled on for a couple of minutes in a vintage episode. It is no surprise that her big moment during the tacked-on, eye-popping fight-finale takes places at this elaborate vantage point atop the staircase. Johnny Lee Miller may as well not even have been in the film at all. As the debauched lounge-lizard father of troubled David (Gulliver McGrath) he adds nothing at all to the story, and merely appears in the frame on a couple of occasions. As Elizabeth’s daughter Carolyn, Chloe Grace-Moretz is actually very good as the arrogant, self-centred teen-rebel – all knee-jerk snobbery and flirtatious pout ‘n’ preen. Personally, I don’t like the actress, but she’s one of the more assured performers here. But the biggest error of all is in how Burton introduces Heathcote’s potential reincarnation of Josette, the newcomer Victoria. He has her appear to be quite important to the plot and to Barnabas, and then he almost completely discards her in the third act. In text-speak – WTF? To create a character who has all sorts of connections to the lead, with lots of hidden motivations and a clear sense of destiny with him and then to simply allow her to practically fade away from the story until the last few seconds, is wretched and downright idiotic. Even a first-time filmmaker wouldn’t make this sort of mistake, and if they did their lack of experience wouldn’t allow them to receive any sympathy for such a fundamental blunder. Burton really should know better. But then, as cult cherished as he is, he can be a seriously careless and cack-handed director at times.
Cameos from Christopher Lee usually go down a treat, even if they do feel a trifle awkward and sort of shoehorned-in as a favour the cult icon. And he’s fine here, though woefully underused. By inept contrast, undead Prince of Shock-Rock, Alice Cooper, is probably overused, playing himself in the past just smacks of product placement with a risible “ball” or “happening” at the mansion. Possibly the most welcome cameo actually comes from Aliens’ inept Marine Lt. Gorman, William Hope, who appears here as an equally inept town sheriff.
But the tone is still too schizophrenic to engage with. There is slapstick and sight-gaggery aplenty. We have murders and frenetic, room-trashing undead sex. There are a couple of last-act shockers to contend with and there is definite sense of doomed and tragic love. It’s just too much here and there and not enough of one theme for an audience to get a handle on how they are supposed to feel about it all. It is almost as though this is a movie quickly thrust together out of segments snipped from the TV show, garnered into a quick-bucks theatrical spin-off. Obviously it doesn’t work.
And yet, despite these misgivings, I have actually seen the film a couple of times now. Admittedly, the first time I was greatly annoyed and disappointed with how Burton bungled it. But I was asked to go again, with some other friends, and I thought that it would, at least, be a chance to lessen my expectations and to reappraise it on its own terms. Well, although some people will still probably disagree, I actually found myself warming a lot more to this hastily knocked-up stew of half-baked ideas and patchy characters second time around. I didn’t discover some half-hidden trove of bizarre brilliance, or any cleverly disguised gems of veiled directorial genius, but I found that its uncompleted and hit-and-miss mood actually fitted right in with most of Burton’s other eccentric explorations. Even the most popular and successful of his films have had, well, moments that didn’t quite work. The majestic dark masterpieces of his two Batman outings had cinematic sums that didn’t add up. I still cannot fathom the love for Beetlejuice or the sad sacks of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland at all, and both Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas suffered with a lack of, well, something that I can’t quite put my finger on … but something. Whilst I like most of his work, I love little of it. My favourite of his films is still Sleepy Hollow, and that certainly has moments that hit a duff note. But his most responsible and intelligent work was actually a steady adaptation of someone else’s creation – Sweeny Todd, which I have to admit that I adored.
Dark Shadowsdoesn’t come remotely close, I’m afraid and, on the jumbled-up basis of this, I doubt we can expect great things from Beetlejuice 2, which shares the same writer in Seth Grahame-Smith who, incidentally, is the man behind the forthcoming Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Yikes! Let’s hope he gets his act together.
The best element in this gothic goulash is Danny Elfman’s rich and baroque score, which is the one thing that is consistent in a film whose tone veers all over the place. Commendably he pays homage to Robert Cobert’s original themes, including that way-out electronic SF warble from the main titles that is immensely addictive and sure to put a malevolent grin on your chops. To hear it here, it actually reminds me of the great Angelos Epithemou blasting off on the mixing desk in TV’s off-its-cake celeb gameshow Shooting Stars! However, I have a love/hate relationship with the regular Burton tunesmith – for every terrific score he comes up, there’s a generic rush-released pile of poop lurking just around the corner. His work for Burton, though, has, by and large, been ebullient, dark and wildly entertaining, with only the sketchy, assembly-line drudge of Planet of the Apes and the strong depressant of Alice In Wonderland (which you can’t blame Elfman for, as the film, itself, was alarmingly dismal) spoiling the broth. Then again, almost everything about Apes was bad, so we should probably let him off for that one, too. Here, his score is everything you could wish for from a gothic Burton/Elfman collaboration. This is like a collision between his scores for Sleepy Hollow and The Wolfman, with the endlessly creepy melancholia and dynamic orchestral shivers of the former, and the weird aggression together with definite strains of the main theme from the latter. And, by God, it works. The film has an agreeable number of songs and ballads from the era, something which, again, would work well with the ex-Oingo Boingo player, and these are largely consigned to the montages of Barnabas’ fish-out-of-water and Carolyn’s rebellious teen angst, but the score, itself, is a fabulously demented and profoundly sinister cavorting through the dark side of the orchestra. Where the film falters, Elfman seems to be doing his best to get it back on track, brooding and lurking with evil designs behind the slapstick, or helping to elevate the various confrontations to the appropriate level of mock-operatic hysteria when the screenplay either nods off or just forgets what direction it is supposed to be heading in.
You could argue that because of this determined barrage of ripe grandeur, the score is possibly inappropriate for much of the camp lunacy that occurs, but I would refute that accusation as this appears to be precisely the juxtaposition that Burton is after. Where Barnabas struggles with the new world and its toys and gadgets, and is apologetic for his various blood-binges, we need the seething undercurrent of Elfman’s magic to provide the madness of such supernatural activities. Burton’s style has always been to mix and contrast the normal with the unnatural, and, especially here, the daftly irreverent with the starkly satanic. This is why Elfman’s score works so bloody well in Sleepy Hollow, and it is certainly the one thing that never loses sight of the ball and remains steadfast and reliable in a film such as this, where characters and subplots seems carelessly fused together and then just allowed out to play on the busy road.
And, visually, the film is definitely up to snuff. The monstrous Collinwood mansion is a seedbed of dust, cobwebs and decay. Jackie Earle Haley, as the family caretaker, actually seems to be the physical embodiment of the decrepit, ramshackle place. The mist-enshrouded enclave of the fractured fishing port (actually a huge set built at Pinewood Studios by Rick Heinrichs) is also a great asset, and there is something vaguely Lovecraftian about it too. You could almost expect to see mutated offspring of the Old Ones ambling about the shadows of the docks, waiting for the Elder Gods to return, or the maritime ghouls from Carpenter’s The Fog to tie-up down by the lighthouse. The FX cavalcade of the climax is reminiscent of some of the warped antics in Death Becomes Her, but I suppose it is nice that Burton actually pays homage to Hitchcock’s Rebecca as well, with a poetic crisis on the cliff-top.
Yet both sets of friends that I saw this with, containing some devout Burton and Depp acolytes in either, were unanimously un-enthralled and underwhelmed by Dark Shadows. My budding genre-buff of a son actually quite liked it though… as, I think, do I. It is a mess, that’s for sure. Too many ideas thrash it out and too many characters are given too little to do. The final act changes tempo and mood to a ludicrous degree, making a mockery of the quirks that came before, and the film leaves you with either a shrug of indifference or a slightly annoyed scratching of the bonce. And yet I love this dark and dastardly milieu of relocated vampires and ghosts and ghouls. I love the fact that Burton pitched in a few naughty moments (watch for Angelique placing her used panties on the face of an incarcerated Barnabas) that will put many a parent in an awkward position come post-movie discussion time with the kids. And, man, I love Elfman’s delectable, skin-prickling score. Let’s put it this way, I will certainly be getting hold of this on Blu-ray … though I would severely hesitate before recommending the film to anyone, including the Burton die-hards.
It is guaranteed to infuriate.
A horror-comedy that isn’t scary or funny, yet contains plenty of elements that are clearly intended to be either, or both. A drama that contains a host of characters who are difficult to care about. A collaboration between a director, a star and a composer that many will now say should come to an end. Dark Shadows may well be a turning point for Tim Burton. As lavishly put together as it is, it stumbles in the mud when it should soar high above the misty moors.
A gothic distraction that only sporadically amuses or entertains, Dark Shadows is one that few will fall under the spell of. Nice idea. Very bad execution.
The Burton/Depp “loco” locomotive finally hits a few obstacles on the track, but I don’t think it is completely derailed. There was always going to be storm clouds on the horizon in taking on Dan Curtis’ epic Dark Shadows, and this was a gamble that hasn’t really paid off. There’s horror, there’s comedy, there’s familial squabbling and centuries-old rivalries, there’s a curse and there are, indeed, monsters, but Burton’s twisted sense of the fun and the macabre can’t quite juggle these disparate elements in the air all at once and, as a consequence, they all come crashing to the floor around his grave-soiled feet. And you'll find that a great cast is mostly left to rot in unhallowed ground.
Maybe this is a film that will vanish into the vapour for a while and then return with a vengeance in a few years time and we’ll all suddenly get the joke and recognise it for the classic that Tim Burton obviously wishes it to be. I doubt it too, to be honest … and I reckon this marks something of a serious misstep for the kooky maestro. He pushed things too far in too many different directions. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that he can’t keep up with his own demons once they’re out of the box.
On the plus side, the film looks and sounds terrific, and Depp is definitely able to tickle the funny bone a couple of times whilst Green look supremely sultry and erotic. But Dark Shadows is a sour tasting dish, overall, and one that will be off the midnight menu in no time at all.
A vampire film with no bite. Very disappointing indeed.
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