Film Review – Dark Shadows
I walked into Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows never having seen the television show that it was based off of. Sometimes, going into a movie completely cold can be an advantage; when you have no expectations, the chances of you liking it can increase substantially. Unfortunately, I knew full well that its director has not had the best track record in recent years. I actually liked Sweeney Todd (2007), but Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Corpse Bride (2005), and Alice in Wonderland (2010) have left much to be desired. While this film does seem to mark a turning point towards the positive for Burton, it still lacks that special quality that made his earlier work so remarkable. Let me put it this way: if you were already a fan of his, then you’ll probably enjoy the film. If not, then this movie isn’t the one to change your mind about him.
Once again, Burton has teamed up with his long time acting partner Johnny Depp for the lead role here. This is now their eighth time working together, and yet again their collaboration has resulted in a performance that is odd and eccentric—but really, would you expect anything else? The last couple of performances Depp has had in a Tim Burton movie have increased significantly in their weirdness factor (The Mad Hatter in Alice and Willy Wonka in Chocolate Factory in particular), resulting in characters that resembled wacky cartoons broken loose of the reigns that should’ve kept them grounded. In this film—while certainly out there with its absurd premise—Depp fortunately scales back a bit more in playing a vampire, allowing his charisma to not be overshadowed by the creepiness of his portrayal. It works for a character that he has to depict as both monstrous and charming; he can have the most pleasant conversation with you, and then turn right around and rip your throat out with his fangs.
Depp is Barnabas Collins, a man who in the 18th century traveled with his family from Liverpool, England to America, finally arriving in Maine. Becoming prosperous in the fishing industry, the Collins family settled down and established the bustling little town of Collinsport (they were a humble family, as you can see). While undoubtedly wealthy, Barnabas also had the reputation of being a bit a playboy, and when he breaks the heart of a woman named Angelique (Eva Green), do his fortunes take a turn. You see, not only is Angelique needy, possessive, and controlling, but she also happens to be a witch. In an act of revenge, Angelique places a powerful spell on Barnabas, turning him into a vampire and trapping inside of a coffin, burying him in the ground where he will lay for over two hundred years.
Now, this all happens in the opening act of the film, and to be honest, I would have preferred that they had kept it in that era. Tim Burton is well known for his dark and gothic style, and I feel that the film would have worked better if they had kept the time frame in the past. Look at Sleepy Hollow (1999), for instance—his twisted style works very well in that kind environment. Unfortunately, we had to flash forward to the 1970s, where Barnabas is unearthed to find a world much different than his. Everyone that he knew is long dead and gone; his name and business is in near ruins; and the only family members he has left are his descendents Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), her nephew David (Gulliver McGrath), and her daughter Carolyn (Chloë Moretz). This is the classic fish-out-of-water set up, and you better believe that there are scenes entirely dedicated to Barnabas trying to readjust to his new surroundings, from listening to rock and roll music, to mingling with the local hippies, to finally bringing his family business back to prosperity in the face of a competing company, run by a woman who looks mysteriously similar to Angelique.
Does it feel like I’ve been doing a lot of explaining so far in this review? That’s because there are one too many scenes of characters simply giving off exposition, rhythmically explaining what has happened and what is happening as if we weren’t smart enough to figure it out ourselves. Yes, the Collins family needs to get their business back on its feet. Yes, we understand that Barnabas broke Angelique’s heart, resulting in her hatred of him. Can we move on now? The beginning and ending sections of the film worked the best. In fact, the climax reminded me a lot of Burton’s earlier work—there was a bit of Beetlejuice (1988) going on here. But the entirety of the middle portion had no momentum whatsoever. Sure, there were plenty of laughs seeing Barnabas try to update himself for this new place that he has been brought to, but those scenes were stretched out so far that I started feeling impatient. Characters were introduced but never really fleshed out. Bella Heathcote played a character that works as Barnabas’s main love interest, but disappears almost entirely until the script finally decided to get back to her storyline. Helena Bonham Carter, who plays the family’s physician, Dr. Julia Hoffman, was a highlight of the cast, but her character had no depth and in the end was—literally—a “throwaway” character.
I have never seen the original Dark Shadows television show, and after seeing the film I don’t have a burning desire to search it out. I will say that the film does have its strong points: the special effects and art design are up to the standard that nearly every Tim Burton movie has; it looks exceptionally well made. Johnny Depp, I feel, has a return to form here, with a performance that is funny, witty, and contains just a touch of sadness as well. Over all, it’s not a bad movie. But it is plagued with an abundance of scenes dedicated entirely to exposition, pacing that slows down in the second act, moments of lowbrow humor that are neither clever nor funny, and a meandering focus that tends to drift away from the main story thread. While definitely better than the last couple of projects Burton has put out, I’m still hoping to see another great work come from this director. He’s just too darn talented not to do it.
Final Grade: C+