Dark Shadows (2012)

Dark Shadows (2012)

Every Family Has Its Demons

Remember when the pairing of director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp would immediately add up to critical and box office success, where titles such as Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Sleepy Hollow (1999) were event films worth looking forward to. The pair’s charisma started to dip after their 2005 re-imagining of the Roald Dahl classic children’s tale Charlie and the Chocolate Factory failed to strike the right chord with both critics and audiences. Despite the fact that Burton’s Dark Shadows features a stellar cast and its initial trailers showed signs of a return-to-form for the director — previews suggested parallels with Burton’s fantastic Beetlejuice (1988) — many remained cynical about the release, due to the tiresome or lackluster premise of the film.

Based on the American gothic soap opera Dark Shadows — which aired on the ABC television network, from June 27, 1966, to April 2, 1971 — the film is a fish-out-of-water comedy reshape of the television show itself. After being turned into a vampire in 1760 by jilted lover and witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) is imprisoned inside a coffin for over two centuries. Collins is eventually unearthed and arises in 1972 — a year after the original Dark Shadows (1966) ended its run — discovering a very changed world. Returning to his once majestic Collinwood family mansion, Barnabas finds the few dysfunctional members of the Collins family who remain — including current household matriarch and Barnabas’ cousin, Elizabeth Collins-Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), manor caretaker, Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley), psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) and 15-year old Carolyn Stoddard (Chloë Grace Moretz), Elizabeth’s only child.

They're creepy and they're kooky, mysterious and spooky ...

They’re creepy and they’re kooky, mysterious and spooky …

Barnabas also discovers that his jealous ex-lover, Angelique Bouchard — the witch responsible for transforming him into a vampire — has taken over the town’s fishing business, which was once run by the thriving Collinses. Determine to return his family name to its former glory — thwarted at every turn by the resentful, seductive Bouchard — Barnabas sets out to reclaim what was once his, but eventually uncovers the dark secrets harbored by the arduous Collins clan.

Dark Shadows has a rather promising opening with Burton’s trade-mark gothic visual style and gloomy storybook images taking centre stage — let’s not forget the terrific credit sequence reminiscent of Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988), featuring The Moody Blues 1967 single Nights in White Satin — but starts to dip when our star Johnny Depp takes centre stage. This is rather strange as Depp himself persuaded Burton to direct the project as he had a childhood fascination with the Dark Shadows television show, calling it a ‘dream’ to one day portray the vampire, Barnabas Collins. Being a Depp vehicle, however, our leading man manages to elbow his way into every frame of the film, shoving his eccentric performance — and an offbeat fashion sense — down viewer’s throats. Yet, Depp is still amusing from time to time — although Barnabas’ blasé attitude towards his vampirism is illogical — as most of the picture’s scenes are constructed around his antics, impulses and indulgences. To be fair, this isn’t necessarily Depp’s fault as Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012), steer their entire narrative around Barnabas and his unfamiliar surroundings, failing to make Elizabeth or the extended Collins family as amusing or memorable as their blood-sucking ancestor.

So get a witch's shawl on, a broomstick you can crawl on ...

So get a witch’s shawl on, a broomstick you can crawl on …

Although the supporting cast are ultimately reduced to bit players, the talented A-list actors attempt to drain the blood out of their limited roles as the eccentric Collins lot. Michelle Pfeiffer — who last teamed up with director Burton twenty years earlier on Batman Returns (1992) — makes little impression as Elizabeth Collins-Stoddard, though the scattershot script doesn’t give her much to work with as far as character development goes. Helena Bonham Carter, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) — in her seventh film with Burton — only has one notable scene where Dr. Hoffman attempts to psychoanalyze Barnabas. Jackie Earle Haley, A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010), slurs a couple of good lines and Chloë Grace Moretz, Let Me In (2010), appears expressionless — albeit intentionally — as the troubled teen Carolyn Stoddard, who is hiding a groan inducing supernatural secret. Only the fabulously beautiful Eva Green, Franklyn (2008), has bite as the vexing vixen Angelique Bouchard, hell-bent on merging Barnabas’ acquisitions with her own and describes her performance as a mix between Bette Davis and Janis Joplin — with that said, Green’s supernaturally charged love scene is one of the film’s most bizarre moments. Finally, Christopher Lee, Sleepy Hollow (1999) and rock star Alice Cooper appear in brief redundant cameos, to no real plot avail.

Tim Burton’s direction on the whole is rather unfocused and moves along at a monotonous pace, with Dark Shadows coming across as a chaotic Addams Family (1991) type dark-comedy rather than an ode to the original series. With haphazard comedy and drama, Burton never quite finds that balance he often achieved in his earlier pictures and spends more time setting the stage for a possible sequel, opposed to neatly wrapping up Barnabas’ age-old feud with Angelique. Nonetheless, Dark Shadows gathers some momentum by its third act where Burton amps up the thrills, spontaneously transforming the picture into a — rather unforeseen — semi-slapdash, supernatural extravaganza, which doesn’t totally make sense, but is at least slightly more stirring than what took place earlier.

Their house is a museum, where people come to see 'em ...

Their house is a museum, where people come to see ’em …

As one would imagine, Burton’s production design and costumes are all first rate. The entire fishing town of Collinsport was constructed from scratch in Pinewood Studios, while production designer Rick Heinrichs, The Wolfman (2010), crafted the Collinwood mansion to reflect the town’s maritime heritage — ocean motifs like fish and mermaids are present throughout the house and its furnishings, including seahorses in the fireplace along with statues of the sea god Neptune. Costume designer Colleen Atwood, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), also blended elements of 18th and 20th century garments together to create the distinctive costumes present in the film. Danny Elfman’s, Corpse Bride (2005), score and the various playful ‘70s hits featured in the film are a perfect combination of classic tracks and eerie melodies embodying the project’s tone rather smoothly and effortlessly.

Although fans of the original late ‘60s soap opera might be somewhat disappointed by this middling effort, Dark Shadows is a groovy — slightly uneven — return to the gothic fairy-tale storytelling Burton is still renowned for. Johnny Depp is up to his usual antics — by simply slapping on some white make-up and acting strange — while the remaining A-list cast are squandered by a muddled script with little character depth. Despite the fact that Dark Shadows is a lavish treat for the senses, fans of both Burton and Depp clearly deserve better, but then again, let’s face it, we’ve seen worse.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

Dark Shadows is released through Village Roadshow Pictures Australia