[Review] - Dark Shadows


I consider myself a Tim Burton fan, despite the fact I haven't actually enjoyed a film of his since Big Fish. Which was, purely by coincidence I'm sure, the last film he made that didn't star Johnny Depp. I also consider myself a Johnny Depp fan, though with two exceptions (Rango and Finding Neverland) I enjoy his pre-Pirates work more than his post.

So, it was with extreme hesitation and trepidation that I went into Dark Shadows, purportedly a passion project for both director and actor, the seed which inspired their respective obsessions with the macabre and whimsical. And was entirely justified by my feelings, as I can add yet another Burton film to the list that has disappointed and disillusioned me. Has Burton completely lost that Burtonseque edge that even The Planet of the Apes excelled in? Or, has it simply been watered down to nothing but a thin, translucent vineer, barely covering the trappings of a disjointed, directionless, over indulgent mess?

Hit the jump for the spoiler filled review.

One thing has always been certain: Tim Burton likes them pale. Man, woman, child, pet. Doesn't matter. Right from the start, in Beetlejuice, Burton's characters have tended to exist in a universe where any amount of time in the sun results in a vampiric reaction. But never before has so many been so pale as in Dark Shadows. The entire cast has been locked in a box, apparently, as they are all as white as printer paper, some even whiter then that. He also likes them artificial. Ridge movements, doll-still hair, cartoonishly over accentuated features. Burton clearly loved playing with toys as a lad, because he still is. These ones are just better paid.

I've always felt there were two Tim Burtons. One was the commerical Burton, the one who made Batman, Alice in Wonderland, and Planet of the Apes. This is a lazy Tim Burton, who draws just a touch outside the lines, but not enough to ever get excited about the project. Certainly, he might go to great lengths to make the film, but you never feel like his heart was in it. It doesn't scream at you from the screen, it whispers. The other Burton is the personal Burton, the one who draws from the heart of himself. The Beetlejuice, Ed Wood, and Edward Scissorhands Burton. The Burton who cuts himself open and lets his soul bleed out on screen. He's not just drawing outside the lines here, he's onto the coffee table. Which was why I had high hopes for Dark Shadows. As he tells it, the original soap opera was one of the defining influences as a child, the show that introduced him to ideas like the undead that would fill his work for the past 25 years. And despite the recent surge in vampiric fiction, no studio would put all their chips on an adaptation of a 50 year old soap opera that no one under 25 has ever heard of. So, Burton loved it, and even with Depp in the cast, it wouldn't be a tent pole movie This could have been good. But it's not. Really not.

Dark Shadows is perhaps the most Burtonesque film he's ever made. Every trope he revelled in is at work. And yet, it is the least successful Burtonesque film he's ever made, only putting in half efforts. The characters all look like their in a Burton film, but aren't quiet as crazy as all that. The architecture has some odd angles, and spirals, but they are soft and loose. Scenes are darkly lit, but only just. The supernatural elements are toyed with, but never fully embraced (despite the main characters being a vampire and a witch, there persists a feeling that they never really want to commit to that fact).

The script carries a lot of the blame. It presents itself like a best of reel of Burton's former films, taking scenes and gags and establishing them without context. Did Seth Grahame-Smith watch all of Burton's other films to crib ideas? Considering that he has made famous by cribbing Pride and Prejudice, possibly. Beetlejuice gets it the worst, having the reveal of the Barnabas Collins character, a two-scene gag, and the climax of the film all taken practically verbatim from that far superior film. No wonder Burton has hired Smith to writer the (never going to happen) sequel, he practically rewrote the original here.

The real problem though is, the script never actually establishes a plot for the viewer to follow. At best, the most cohesive plot was the idea that Barnabas wants to restore the family to it's former glory, but that only gets a single montage and is largely abandoned. Other plots include the mysterious governess, who disappears almost entirely once Depp shows up, two disturbed children, neither of whom are important to the film at all (and one of whom is saddled with a reveal at the end that makes no sense what so ever, as apparently Smith never took a 'foreshadowing' class), two different ghosts, a drunk psychiatrist, a love sick (and then love scorned, then love sick, then love scorned, rinse, repeat) witch whose motives are foggy to say the least, a family business, public support in the town, and the brother character, who is a thief. All of these things happen, and none of them lead anywhere, and none of them happen organically.

As I have discovered, the movie covers nearly every single plot line the series did in four years of daily episodes. And Smith attempted to cram them all into a two hour long movie. As Barnabas says, "it did not work." How apathetic (or overzealous) was Burton that he never stopped Smith and told him to keep it simple. By making a good movie with one or two plots, there might have been a chance at a sequel, wherein you could use some of the left overs. That way, characters like the boy, or the brother, might have actually become characters that I could remember rather then adjectives.

The tone is wildly uneven at the best of times. Whole stretches of the film go by playing everything straight, like a poorly made horror or thriller, then out of no where, a gag lands on the floor and dies slowly. Then it will decide it's going to be a comedy for a while, an unfunny one mind, until something horrible happens, and it swaps back. For all the crap the sparkling vampires get, at least it's consistent. Barnabas only bursts into flames in the sun for as long as it's needed for a gag. In one scene, he stands in the sun, is set on fire, is put out, and continues to stand in the sun long after, without mentioning it, because the gag is over.

The cast is just putting in time, which again is odd. Depp was apparently in love with Barnabas as a child, but he puts in little effort to actually make him likable, or sympathetic, or anything other than the grandfather of the emo movement, complete with endless moaning and a slicked hair cut. Michele Pfeiffer can't decide if she's going to role her 'a' and 'r's in every scene or not, and no one else does so it's all the more confusing. Johnny Lee Miller isn't given anything to do, so he's just scenery. Helena Bonham Carter is there because... she's Burton's muse (though really, I think at this point, it's really Depp). The only person in the cast who looks like they're enjoying themselves is Eva Green, who plays the ageless witch Angelique Bouchard. She looks like she's having too much fun, in fact, but she's the only one, and so she's the best thing to watch. Pity her character wasn't given a more consistent motivation to follow. I noted how much her English has improved (nearly no trace of an accent) since she first came to English language films in Casino Royale, to the point where her voice is different in every scene, ranging from seductively smooth to Kathleen Turner.

The music is distracting. Like in Watchman, an overemphasis on period appropriate popular music overwhelms the scenes it's played over, and the music they chose didn't suit the feel of the film. Danny Elfman's score, usually the one consistent shining light in Burton's films, is so muted I barely remember i I heard note one. Want a crash course is how to effectively use popular music to juxtapose and enhance a scene in a film? See the use of La Mer in the closing scene of the recent Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy remake. Masterful, that.

Perhaps they might have been better off releasing this later in the year, more around Halloween. It's wouldn't have made it better, but in the hum-drum of the late fall, it wouldn't have been so glaringly bad considering that it wouldn't be flanked by The Avengers on one side, and Prometheus on the other (I'm assuming here that Prometheus will be top shelf, not bargain bin, like this offering). Perhaps they might not have just blindly allowed Burton free reign, which they must have done considering Alice in Wonderland was a (highly questionable) financial success. The old saying goes, though, in Hollywood, you're only as good as your last film. That, however, has never seemed to apply to Tim Burton.

But, nine hippies were killed terribly. So I guess it wasn't all bad.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

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