Saturday, May 12, 2012

Love: Dark Shadows

When I was 18 I would never have fathomed that there might come a time when the world would suffer from overexposure to Tim Burton and Johnny Depp.  It’s a terrible ennui, but a valid one.  The two have collaborated on five films together in the past decade, and somewhere along the way, something went sour.  I can tell you, sort of, what it was for me: the major studio hand in the building of the new, recalibrated A-list leading man version of Johnny Depp.  One iconic character (Captain Jack Sparrow) led to a well-documented list of crummy sequels and boring money-grabbers (The Tourist, anyone?) for the actor.  For the pairing? Let’s just say the dreadfully misguided Alice in Wonderland was enough to wear on anyone’s nerves.  With big, noisy, overbearing claptrap like that, it’s easy to forget that along the way Depp had a major hand in the brilliant Rango and the two made the very successful, unflinchingly dark Sweeney Todd.
Yet, forget we have.  We’re bored. I shouldn’t have to tell you, when you’re already sick of something, looking at a trailer for more of the same doesn’t help much.  And, even early on, Dark Shadows looked to be a large serving of more of the same.  Still, I held out hope.  Why not? They were a dynamic duo, a magical pairing shrouded in shadows for gothically-inclined kids to worship secretly on bookshelf altars.  My inner 18-year old (who I listen to pretty frequently) was in teen crush love with Johnny Depp, of course, and Burton will always appeal to me as a fellow black-clad pale weirdo with a penchant for all things in contrasting stripes; but I don’t believe this necessarily clouds my vision.  You could argue, actually, that it might just enhance it with regard to Barnabas Collins.   I am exactly the target market for Dark Shadows and, I must say, though I can see where the detractors are coming from, I found a lot to admire in this glossy oddball comedy. 


Dark Shadows is derived from the 60’s soap opera of the same name and follows the exploits of the cursed Collins family.  The film makes a great show of detailing the family’s meteoric rise to East Coast royalty.  They’re captains of the fishing industry, and have been in the business for generations, though not without enduring near endless strife.  The family’s most famed member is beautiful corpse Barnabas (Johnny Depp), a man who –two centuries ago- wronged Angelique (Eva Green)- the wrong witch to mess with- and watched as his beloved Josette (Bella Heathcote) plummeted to her doom from those steep seaside cliffs.  He follows her, as tragic heroes are wont to do, and awakens to find himself cursed as a long-clawed vampire.  Fast forward to 1972 and we see Barnabas returning (like Uncle Fester before him) to Collinwood, the family manor, only to find his beloved home in disrepair and run by a rag-tag bunch of lamentable blood relations.  Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) would be a textbook WASP if she weren’t so gloomy; and under her watch she has her disagreeable daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), a deadbeat brother (Johnny Lee Miller), his ‘loony’ young son (Gulliver McGrath), and a live-in, permanently drunk psychiatrist Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter).  There's a bright spot among the rabble, though, as Barnabas also finds David’s young governess (every dark estate needs one) Victoria (Heathcote again), a girl who happens to be a dead ringer for his long-lost bride.
The elements are gathered from far and wide in the pop culture galaxy, not solely pulled from the original soap opera itself.  Burton appears to be having great fun blending the disparate landscapes of gloomy gothic revival and garishly colored hippiedom, and the result is a surprisingly sumptuous blend of rich contrasts that plays well with the film’s temperament.  Carolyn’s bedroom is decked out in shag carpeting, lava lamps, and T.Rex posters while other rooms are made from elaborate carvings of monstrous figures, wolf packs, and larger than life arches.  It’s an old school haunted mansion and an art director’s dream; beautiful, luxe, cold, comforting and menacing all at once.  Within Colinwood, the actors and actresses move like painted jewels or plastic dolls in a demented dream house.  This isn't a bad thing.  Their immaculate make-up glows whiter, the blood on their lips is brighter, their hair seems to shine, and it’s hard to look away from them.  They’re appropriately hypnotic, even when the film might not be.
One of the criticisms of Dark Shadows will certainly be that it doesn’t seem to know, exactly, what it is or where it's going.  Where it was marketed as a broad comedy, it fails.  This is not a vampire Austin Powers,  nor is it a tarted-up Addams Family (though that DNA is much, much closer).  I’ll be the first to admit that Dark Shadows is not really funny in the laugh out loud sense.  So, while it’s not particularly funny, it is, obviously, a bit silly.  This wouldn’t be a problem, of course, if the film had transformed into a sort of Sleepy Hollow rehash.  But, of course, while the body count is actually quite high (this vampire does, indeed, suck copious amounts of blood),  It’s not at all horrific.  Instead, it just exists as a gently bent portrait of a quirky, troubled clan that takes its soapy roots to heart (the dialogue tends towards the slow and dramatically purpled) while itching to release its monsters on the world.  Dark Shadows operates at a pleasant simmer.  It wants you to soak in all its glowing ghosts, dense trees, and high ceilings.  Unlike Alice, it’s never spastic, nor does it depend on distracting CG.  In watching it, my eyeballs were delighted and I was entranced, in a way.  It seemed to quietly hit all the right notes.  Yet, for most, that won’t be enough. 

I can’t speak as to whether or not Tim Burton stuck to the source material (though I know the show has been added to Netflix instant here in the US), but I can say that the film has his finger prints all over it and seems (unlike Alice) to be an act of love.  There is an innocence lurking in the shadows of the film, and while it may not be the strongest in his filmography, it’s an impressive singular vision that certainly trumps your average TV adaptation any day of the week.  The actors have been brilliantly cast, Green is positively magnetic, and Depp remains the perfect character actor for Burton’s directorial visions.  He's a delight to watch, even if its a variation on several characters we've seen from him before.  If you’re a Burton/Depp fan with any bit of lingering hope left, I recommend you ignore the naysayers and take a bit of time to luxuriate in the world Dark Shadows offers.   I suspect you’ll find something to love there, even if its guiltily.  These are, after all, your people.  




5 comments:

  1. Excellent review. "Labor of love" it may have been (both on the part of Burton and Depp). Still, I just don't think that this project was completely thought through ... The most compelling character aside from Depp's Barnabas was Eva Green's Angelique and ... (those who see the picture will probably understand what I mean ...).

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    1. It's true. It does seem as though a crucial element is missing, somehow. I will say, though, that out of curiosity I tried watching an episode of the show. I completely understand why Burton paced the movie the way it is, they nailed that.

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  2. This is pretty accurate and you managed to render your thoughts that are very close to mine but that I couldn't put in words. And finally, I'm glad that I see a positive review!

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    1. Thanks! I sense we're not going to see very many other ones. Oh well...

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  3. Really excited to see this! Despite the bad reviews I've read, I've still got a good vibe about this.. glad to see you do too :)

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