Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sunday Review: Dark Shadows (2012)

    This one should keep Hot Topic stores across the nation well-stocked...

    You could say that Tim Burton is a victim of his own success. His sensibilities at first seem very outside the mainstream, and yet the bulk of his filmography - quirky though it may be - is totally mainstream. His characters are outsiders, freaks and outcasts, but his films constantly put them through the most rote, perfunctory situations. A little over two decades ago he gave us Beetlejuice, a perfect blend of screwball comedy and funhouse horror, which announced him as a fresh voice with something new to say. The only problem being that was all he had to say, as nearly every movie he’s made since has been a variation on the same theme. He’s far too playful to be a true horror director, far too melodramatic to make a true comedy and, underneath his pale and quirky exterior, really too middle-of-the-road to make much of an impression on anything nowadays. His track record of the last decade has run the gamut from flawed-but-interesting (Sweeney Todd, Big Fish) to flat-out terrible (Planet of the Apes, Alice in Wonderland). Sadly, Dark Shadows falls more into the latter than the former.

    Burton at least seems engaged here, like he’s trying to make a good movie. There’s a love and reverence here to the original soap opera that inspired the film, as his style is toned down a bit to match the nature of the stripped-down, stage-bound original. Beginning in the late sixties as a daytime soap with dark undertones, Dark Shadows changed dramatically when it introduced the vampire Barnabas Collins, played by Jonathan Frid as a cursed antihero in search of his time-lost love. The character completely consumed the show, turning the daytime soap into a sensation, with books, merchandise and two feature film adaptations to its name (although the live-on-tape show was probably more popular for its flubbed lines than anything else). Burton takes the basic conceit of a vampire from centuries ago returning to his estate and turns it into a fish-out-of-water story, with the antiquated Barnabas trying to fit into the world of the 1970’s. Considering the high camp-factor of the overly-serious show, it’s not the worst direction a film adaptation could take. But a scattershot script and a thoroughly terrible third act completely derail the film, despite the best efforts of an otherwise impressive cast.

    Burton and his frequent collaborator Johnny Depp make for an interesting team, although both seem to be charting the same career-path: once great talents coasting on their previous goodwill and sliding further and further into mediocrity. Depp these days seems more interested in wearing outlandish outfits and being weird than actually “acting.” But one thing he hasn’t lost is his comic timing, which serves him admirably here. It’s a lot of fun watching Depp as the eternally stiff Barnabas interact with the new world around him. And he and his director prove (like in Edward Scissorhands before) that they still know what makes a movie monster tick. The opening flashback to Barnabas’ origins is wonderful, the scene where he becomes a vampire evoking the best of the old Universal Monster movies. Even his look mostly works - I was a little worried when the first stills hit of Depp in his ghastly white make-up, but it works with the rest of the film, his wardrobe and long fingernails alternatively hinting at both Counts Orlock and Dracula. But Burton and Depp nail more than just his look: Barnabas is a sympathetic character, but he’s still a bloodsucking monster (something we discover as he tears apart the workers who unearth him in the film’s best scene). Depp gets the pathos of the character mostly right, all while doing a fairly killer impersonation of Jonathan Frid.

    Less successful is the rest of the cast, primarily Eva Green as Angelique, the witch who curses Barnabas to his vampiric fate for shunning her in favor of his true love, Josette. Green throws her all into the role, but the character is way too broad to read as anything other than plot motivation. Most everything Angelique does she does only to move the plot (what little of it there is) forward, wanting to make life hell for the Collins family, and doing so with just about every Hollywood cliché in the book (blackmail, kidnapping, framing, blowing stuff up, etc.)

    Michelle Pfeiffer plays Elizabeth, the current head of the Collins estate. She has the right presence for an aging trust-fund baby, but barely leaves an impression - due both to little screen-time and overall irrelevance. Chloe Moretz plays her daughter Carolyn, and while the young actress is destined to one day be a star, this won’t be a role we’ll remember her for. Helena Bonham-Carter also makes her obligatory appearance, here playing the live-in family psychiatrist, and is involved in the film’s most useless subplot (which is saying a lot, for this movie). Gulliver McGrath plays the youngest Collins, David, and while the young actor handles himself well against veterans like Depp, he plays a character so undercooked we almost forget he’s in the movie (up until the very end, when he’s needed in a suitably contrived manner). You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned Johnny Lee Miller as David’s dad, Roger Collins - and now you know just how important he is.

    But underdeveloped as the cast is, the one who ends suffering the most is Victoria Winters, played by Bella Heathcote. At first, we’re led to believe that Victoria will be the character we follow throughout most of the film - our window into the strange world of the Collins’ family, as we’re introduced to all of them as she is during her interview for the position of David’s tutor. She gets the job, and then sees the ghost of Barnabas’ murdered loved one Josette - who looks just like her because it was her in a past life (maybe?). We find out a little more about her back-story as the film goes on, but she virtually disappears once Barnabas makes his triumphant return. She reappears only when Burton and co. remember that, “Hey, this is supposed to be a love story, right?” and hand her over to Barnabas to be his love interest. There’s a compelling love triangle to be told here between immortal lovers and reincarnated souls, but everything in the film plays second-fiddle to Depp and the production design, leaving the script far, far behind.

    The design and look of the film is eerily fantastic, with Burton playing the gothic atmosphere of the Collins family nicely against the 70’s setting *, but that’s to be expected from a Tim Burton movie. Also to be expected: an extremely thin script. Story and character have most always taken a back seat in Burton’s films - it’s just not where the director’s true interests lie - and here we have a script so muddled it hardly knows where it’s going half the time. It’s an ensemble film that doesn’t know what to do with its ensemble, so it just discards and picks out whatever characters it needs at random, ambling on aimlessly until we get to a third act which completely derails the whole affair.

    The film ends in a battle between Angelique and the surviving members of the Collins family, which sees all manner of ghosts, ghouls, a werewolf **, and even Michelle Pfeiffer (with shotgun) unleashed. It’s a smorgasbord of monsters, not unlike the recent Cabin in the Woods, only lame and lacking severely in sense. Even worse, there’s set-up for a sequel that promises to be possibly the least interesting turn of events the story could have taken, setting up a part two that I don’t think will leave anyone waiting in breathless anticipation to see.

    Despite brief moments of wit (there’s an amusing scene where Depp mistakes the golden arches of a certain fast-food chain for the emblem of Mephistopheles), the horror-comedy Dark Shadows fails on both counts - neither all that scary or funny.    

* Although this is the Hollywood 70’s, where everything is amplified to the Nth degree - expect no shortage of facial hair, bell-bottoms and disco balls. Also, as much I as love the music of the era, here it’s played so much on the soundtrack it has a somewhat numbing effect.

** SPOILERS: Possibly the lamest werewolf ever, where we find out Chloe Moretz’ character has been a lycanthrope all along. No set-up, no real hints (outside of a crass masturbation reference): she just up and turns into a werewolf.  

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