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Sunday, May 27, 2012


The Tim Burton / Johnny Depp collaboration has, by now, become a genre of its own. Originally it was a fresh new take at the gothic horror story as a comedy of manners. But what was once fresh has now become so conventional that Burton-esque is indeed an adjective. Usually filmmakers strive for their name to become an adjective  but when you can apply it to their own work, it means their work is becoming repetitive and uninspired. Dark Shadows is very Burton-esque; it is exactly what you expect from a Burton/Depp summer blockbuster- nothing less than, but sadly, not much more either.

Based on the 1960s daytime series of the same name, Dark Shadows stars Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins, who despite being the most popular character of the TV series wasn’t, strictly speaking, its protagonist. Nevertheless, here the story begins in the 1700s when Barnabas’ family, the Collins, establish the town of Collinwood and their fish canning empire. Young Barnabas has an affair with one of the servants, Angelique (Eva Green), who turns out to be a witch. So when Barnabas leaves Angelique for the much better suited Josette (Bella Heathcote), Angelique curses his family, send the lovely Josette walking off a cliff, turns Barnabas into a vampire, and locks him in a coffin for 200 years. 

Barnabas awakes in 1972 (interestingly TV show was cancelled in 1971) only to find the Collins estate in a decrepit state. Its current inhabitants include: Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), the family’s matron, Carolyn (Chloe Grace-Moretz), her brooding teenage daughter, Roger (Johnny Lee Miller), Elizabeth’s brother, and David, Roger’s son who claims to see the ghost of his dead mother. They are all in all your average movie dysfunctional family, each member only filling in an archetype. Finer character details are left off, and when things like Carolyn’s curse are finally revealed, at the climax... they kinda feel anticlimactic. 

An inspired Tim Burton could have done a lot more with a family living in a haunted manor, visited by ghosts and harboring a time-displaced vampire. But instead we get a family arguing at the dinner table and teenage angst.
Living with the Collins are Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), the groundskeeper Willie Loomis (Jackie Earl Haley), and the new governess Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote... again), whom was the actual protagonist of the original series and is here reduced to a side-note of a love interest. 

Anyways, a good portion of the film spends its time focusing on Barnabas’ adaptation to his new life in the 1970s (The family is surprisingly welcoming to their long lost cousin). And for the most part the decade is put to good use. The soundtrack is filled with rock and disco classics. Alice Cooper makes a cameo. And Barnabas has an interaction with a lava lamp only a vampire could have. And while Barnabas helps the Collins family restore their grandeur it does not take long for Angelique, the witch of the 1700s, to make her appearance. Once again inexplicably infatuated by Barnabas and with a grudge against the whole Collins family. A grudge over a 200-year old love affair? Clearly this is based on daytime television. 

At their best Burton and Depp have given us Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, and Sleepy Hollow (not surprisingly their earlier collaborations). They still deliver what you expect from them. Depp gives a straight arrow performance with a character that is so bizarre and out of place that every other character needs to take notice (except for a gang of stoned-out hippies he has a rather entertaining interaction with). And Burton continues to deliver eye-opening visual and spectacularly lavish sets and art direction. 

It is not that Dark Shadows doesn’t deserve merit, it deliver and it entertains, only that it feels that we have been here before. Burton and Depp delivered a billion dollar movie with Alice in Wonderland, only 10 directors can claim such a feat, and that should have been enough for studios to give Burton absolute freedom for him to unleash his creativity. Dark Shadows feels too formulaic and way too uninspired for this to have been the case.

Unleash the monster. We need another Big Fish. Another Ed Wood. Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice!!!


Nick Adams said...

Funniest line: "Dark Shadows is very Burton-esque."

I'm sure the next Burton film will also be washed of color/over-saturated and feature a quasi-dead protagonist.

I got a kick out of this review. I'm also glad Helen Bonham Carter got to make her obligatory, supporting-role, appearance in this latest Tim Burton film.

Am I alone in thinking "Big Fish" was Burton's best?

JC Elizondo said...

No, I agree with you Big Fish is Burton's best. Though I would put Edward Scissor Hands and Ed Wood up there as well.

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