Sunday, May 27, 2012

Dark Shadows (2012): A Gothic Comedy?

Despite my passion for all things Johnny Depp, I shall attempt to provide an honest review of his most recent collaboration with Tim Burton, Dark Shadows.

As  kid, I remember my grandmother watching the serial soap opera of the same name, and I recall checking out reruns of it later on some television channel that is probably now defunct.  So I have a great understanding of the basic plot here.  Barnabas Collins appears at his family estate to resume his control and to find his long lost love.

When I first heard that Depp had a major interest in the TV series and was planning to headline a theatrical remake, I was in heaven.  After all, I love vampires, I love Johnny.  Perfect, right?  Though I did have some reservations about whether or not Depp could pull off the tall, imposing character of Barnabas.  But he'd went goth before and no doubt could do it again.

I assumed that the re-do would be dark - perhaps even sinister.  The soap opera could only go so far on daytime television, so I really thought the film could get truly gothic and would pull out all the stops.  I had no idea until I saw the trailer that they'd went for laughs instead of frights.  To be fair, the soap was campy.  But after bearing witness to this new version of Barnabas & Co., I'm really not sure what to make of it. And this distresses me a great deal.

Barbabas Collins (Depp) has arisen from the grave 200 years after being imprisoned there by Angelique Bouchard (played with great fervor by the gorgeous Eva Green), a scorned lover who just happened to be a witch.  Making his way back to his family estate, Collinwood, he discovers all that is left of his home is a bizarre assortment of family members and a frequently sloshed shrink, Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter).

Burton was fortunate to cast some talented actors in his eighth film with Depp.  Michelle Pfeiffer portrays Collins matriarch Elizabeth and seems to enjoy the over-the-top acting required of her in the role.  Jackie Earle Haley didn't have quite enough to do as Barnabas's right hand man, Willie Loomis, but was perfectly cast nonetheless.  Jonny Lee Miller, as Roger, Elizabeth's brother is a bit of an asshole.  His son David (Gulliver McGrath) yearns for his dad to take notice of him and console him after the untimely death of his mother, with whom David claims speaks to him - but Roger is too busy to care.  The other Collins of the quartet is Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), an audacious teenager who has a surprise or two up her sleeve. There is also an elderly maid, Mrs. Johnson (Ray Shirley), who has nothing at all to do here except age.

As stated, Eva Green as Angelique is probably the pick of the litter here, relishing the devious nature of her character. She's just great!
The only person I thought was slightly miscast was the pivotal role of Victoria Winters.  While I will say Bella Heathcote does a fine job with the role (and it's obvious she'd be perfect in something like Jane Eyre), I just didn't feel her in the role of Barnabas's sweetheart.  While I realize Josette/Victoria was supposed to be young, Heathcote just looked TOO young.  I would have liked to have seen someone a bit older in the role so that Barnabas didn't appear to be robbing the cradle and swapping spit with a Justin Beiber fan.  To assume she'd have enough experience of any kind to become a governess for young David was just a bit much.  I do realize that Heathcote is 24 (I have Google, too) - but they had her so dressed down with little to no makeup whatsoever, she looked 15.  She'd be ideal for the next season of Glee, provided she could sing....

I digress.  The film starts out promisingly enough, with a bit of back story into the Collins name and how they made their fortune in America.  Lucky son Barnabas has all the pleasures one is afforded in an affluent lifestyle such as theirs.  He also has the extreme misfortune of jilting a servant girl he had been dallying with.  Angelique thought she had secured Barnabas's love, and when he unceremoniously dumps her, her true nature is revealed.  She is a witch, and not only kills his parents in a freak "accident", she also puts a spell on Barnabas's betrothed, Josette, causing her to walk off a cliff and plunge to the rocks below. Not quite finished, Angelique curses Barnabas to be a vampire, then buries him 'alive', leaving him to rot for two centuries.
Flash forward to 1972.  A young woman named Maggie is on her way to Collinsport to attain a job as a governess to David Collins.  On her way, she decides to conceal her identity and changes her name to Victoria Winters, though we are never to learn why.  As the train travels north to Maine, we are treated to the melancholy tune of Nights in White Satin, setting the stage for what we hope to be a gothic tale of love and damnation.  Um, not so fast.

Barnabas wakes after some construction workers discover his casket.  He quickly disperses of them as only a vampire can (but we are not really treated to the actual killings, very little gore here, folks).  He is certain that the devil has come calling for him, in particular when he sees the giant golden arches of McDonalds and takes it as the sign for Mephistopheles... Seriously.  Product placement like you've never seen before.  It is here where I had to consider that Burton was going to seriously fuck with this film. 

Arriving at Collinwood to discover the house in a sad state of disrepair, Barnabas demands to know what happened. Elizabeth explains that the Collins fortune has been overturned because of Angelique Bouchard, who has made her own fortune in the fishing business by bewitching and hexing the fisherman to be loyal only to her.  (By the way, great cameo by Sir Christopher Lee as an elderly fishing captain. Perfect!)

Barnabas meets and greets the rest of the family, who have been told he is a family relative from England.  He also catches the eye of Victoria, and in doing so he is flabbergasted to see she is a doppelganger of Josette.  And so it begins.

By that I mean the story attempts to keep us interested as it goes along its merry way.  Angelique is now a pillar of the community, and when she finds Barnabas restoring his family's fishing company to its previous glory (by bespelling the fishing captains to do his bidding - two can play at that game!), she demands he join her or suffer the consequences.  Meanwhile, Dr. Hoffman tells Barnabas she can reverse his curse, and begins to give him frequent transfusions. Additionally, Barnabas and Josette Maggie Victoria are getting cozy and getting down to the tunes of Alice Cooper.  No, I'm more than serious.  Barnabas has a big ball (yeah, go there if you want to- the film did) and headlining the entertainment is the shock rocker himself.  This was a ridiculous display of WTF. While I like Cooper as well as the next guy, this segment of the film (along with an unbelievably stupid sex scene) really drug the film further down into absurdity.

More of this please....
Not everything was bad.  A film with Johnny Depp is still A FILM WITH JOHNNY DEPP to me, so I would never say I hated it.  There are elements that are enjoyable, and much of the funny "oh shit, it's 1972??!" shtick was amusing.  But I really felt it missed the mark on a lot of golden opportunities.  Yes, the original daytime soap opera was campy and even inane at times, but let's not forget it held a certain charm in its gothic silliness.

....and less of this.
Without Depp as the star here, it would be much less forgivable and much more laughable.  And not in a good way.  There is a scene in which we are to assume that Dr. Hoffman goes down on of those 'fade to black'-type scenes.  A seriously daft moment in the script, if I do say so.  It had no bearing on the story and when it happened I kind of cringed.  No, I think I totally cringed.
Unnecessary and pointless.  To have it there just for a laugh was inappropriate and way too corny!

So what am I to make of this hot mess that is Dark Shadows?  Well, I will say I was entertained.  I didn't walk out, didn't bitch too loudly, and will probably buy on DVD (as I do with most Depp films).  But as a legitimate remake of the wonderfully campy and unforgettable daytime soap?  Nah.  It falls flat and has too many pedestrian jokes and too much quirky, offbeat humor.  Just when you think they are "getting it", it practically morphs into a stand-up routine or a skit on SNL.  If you've seen the extended trailer, you've seen most of the funny scenes.

It's a beautiful film, as most of Burton's films are, and the musical score by Burton fave Danny Elfman works here.(Though to be honest, some scenes almost felt like they should have cartoon musical interludes instead of legit scoring!)  The set design is gorgeous, the costumes are faultless, and most of the acting is polished.  But somewhere in there is the gothic horror film I wish they'd made.  Maybe they wish they'd made it too.


The Film Connoisseur said...

This is a major thing with this movie, Dark Shadows fans were dissapointed, but those who'd never seen the show enjoy it, I guess people were NOT expecting it to be a comedy at all! I guess they have a right to since the show was never really a comedy, still as a Burton/Depp film, I had a blast with it.

Anonymous said...

I just saw this at the drive-in two days ago. Maybe it's the fact that being at a drive-in is still such a thrill to me that pretty much any movie is better; or maybe it's that it was after midnight when the movie began and I was slightly slap-happy from being knee-deep in a 24 hour period of wakefulness. But I really did enjoy this movie. Sure, it had it's problems, but I was entertained throughout the running time, and sometimes that's enough.

I was never a fan of the TV show--I watched the entire season of Barnabas's first appearance (Season 2, I believe, which was the first season available in full at the time), and it was just never my bag. But the movie seemed to distill all of the best of the series into a 90 minute film pretty decently. Granted, it was more of a satire of itself than it was a straight film--i.e., the Brady Bunch Movie--but some things just don't benefit from taking themselves so seriously.

The finale was a little odd to me, though, as there were suddenly a half-dozen plot elements introduced when it was far too late to explore them.

And Willy Loomis definitely should have had more to do. It was almost a waste of perfect casting.

An extra half-hour running time, and I think it could have been improved. Here's hoping for an extended cut on DVD.