Dark Shadows (2012)

Dark Shadows (2012) – I’ve always found daytime soaps to be rather ridiculous. I don’t know why that’s where I draw the line, while I do enjoy the “guilty pleasure” of weekly prime time soaps on networks like the CW, but I do. (Maybe production value.) However from 1966 to 1971, while other daytime soaps were about so-and-so- cheating on whatsherface while faking deaths and what have you, there was one about a vampire. Also a witch. And other stuff. I have never seen a single episode of Dark Shadows so I can’t say with any certainty that it didn’t devolve into the usual daytime soap idiocy (in fine I find it rather likely that it did) but if it did it did it with vampires dammit! (And not the sparkly kind!) Anyway, the successful director-star duo of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have taken the reigns of the new film version of Dark Shadows which like the recent 21 Jump Street film takes a decidedly comedic spin on an ostensibly serious show.

Depp assumes the role of Barnabas Collins (played on the show by Jonathan Frid, who passed away a couple weeks before the film opened. He can be seen with a couple other cast members during a party scene). Barnabas is a Liverpudlian immigrant to the United States, where his family set up a fishing empire on the east coast. He casts aside a lover named Angelique (Eva Green), who turns out to be a witch and very much the jealous type. She kills Barnabas’s parents and his true love (Bella Heathcote) and locks him in a coffin for a couple of centuries. Barnabas awakens in 1972. He tracks down the current members of the Collins family: matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her sleazy brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), Elizabeth’s surly teenage daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz), and Roger’s precocious son David (Gulliver McGrath). Also living in the Collins estate are drunken butler Willie (Jackie Earle Haley), David’s therapist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), and the new governess “Victoria” (Bella Heathcote again). The Collins family has fallen on hard times and Barnabas decides to restore it to its former glory… but Angelique is still around and man can that chick hold a grudge.

The film gets some laughs, enough that I would overall rank it as an enjoyable enough movie. However something is missing. There is some clumsy storytelling. There are several characters who don’t have much to do and are only in the movie because they were characters on the show (Roger and Dr. Hoffman seems particularly superfluous, though the latter gets worked into the plot decently enough). Depp’s Barnabas is very similar to his Ichabod Crane in Burton’s Sleepy Hollow. It’s territory Depp has mined before and better. His befuddlement with 1972 amuses, but never feels particularly original. He thinks Alice Cooper is “the ugliest woman [he’s] ever seen.” Funny once but they keep going back to that well. There’s a twist involving Carolyn that is not really foreshadowed at all and gave me the impression that the writer just said “yeah, why the hell not?” Maybe it happened on the show, I don’t know. Either way it’s out of nowhere and adds nothing to the movie. Props to Moretz for working with very little and actually creating a character out of it. That girl’s a pro.

Tim Burton is, of course, incapable of making a film that doesn’t have his own always-interesting visual style. So Dark Shadows has that going for it. The usual Burton crew has assembled: Depp, Carter, Christopher Lee, composer Danny Elfman, costume designer Colleen Atwood. My favorite Burton thing in the theater though was the trailer for Frankenweenie that preceded the film. Returning to the stop motion animation he used in Corpse Bride and The Nightmare Before Christmas (though Henry Selick actually directed the latter), it’s a feature length remake of his live action short from the 80s (which I’ve heard of part of what got him fired from Disney). I think Burton’s best work is personal. Movies like Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice sprung from his imagination and they’re among his best. He can work adaptations very well (I thought Sweeney Todd was pretty great) but in recent years he’s become a director-for-hire. Studios hire him to get a look but not the heart that makes his movies like Ed Wood or Big Fish so great. When he does a movie like Planet of the Apes, Alice in Wonderland, or Dark Shadows it feels like he’s making someone else’s flick just through a Burton-y lens.  I really want Frankenweenie to be great and a big hit that gets Tim Burton making Tim Burton movies again.

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