Friday, 11 May 2012

Dark Shadows (Tim Burton, 2012) Review

"Wait, are those... bell-bottoms?" Johnny Depp in Dark Shadows (2012)...

Succeeding thirteen years of sprung-from-the-coffin mediocrity, frizzy-haired kookster Tim Burton reclaims his morose mojo with the mind boggling Dark Shadows, an expensive updating of Dan Curtis' equally offbeat 1960's soap opera. Johnny Depp (who else?) stars as Barnabas Collins, the demure nosferatu living two centuries out of his time, catapulted into the swinging '70s after falling foul of the ravishing witch Angelique (Eva Green) in the early 1700's. Screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (currently penning Beetlejuice 2) hurtles us through an expository prologue, envisioning Liverpool like the London of Burton's Sweeney Todd (2007); all foggy shipyards, spindly forests and petite ingénues cloaked in silk petticoats. Here we're informed of Barnabas' backstory - the death of his parents, his affair with Angelique, and her jealous rage which lead to the murder of Josette (Bella Heathcote), his one true love. Transformed by the sorceress into a pasty-skinned bloodsucker, halfway between Max Schreck and Andrew Eldritch, Barnabas is entombed without hope of escape - that is until construction workers dig up the site some 250 years later. This swiftly paced sequence ticks off every Burton cliché with an embarrassing relish, Danny Elfman's score instructing every beat of the drama, and drumming the film into that coffin state of mediocrity - a state from which it soon, mercifully, breaks...

In many ways Dark Shadows is the least Burton-esque film the anomalous auteur has ever made, and in others it's entirely emblematic of the style he's been honing since 1991's Edward Scissorhands. Fast-forwarding two hundred years, the 1972 of Dark Shadows looks perturbingly normal, picking up with the young Victoria (Heathcote, again) as she rides the train to Collinwood, scored by the gentle strains of Moody Blues guitar ('Nights In White Satin'). At first glance Collinwood has an affectingly quaint small-town appeal - the little seaport movie house is playing a double-bill of Deliverance (Boorman) and Superfly (Parks, Jr.), yachts overlook the hangout hut-cum-café's, streets are littered with nostalgic vinyl stores and mini-vans shuttle along its roads. Lawrence Kasdan might make movies here. But Barnabas' towering mansion locks us firmly into the gothic arena of classic Burton, and a quick head-count of the supporting cast confirms the hand of its director.

Michelle Pfeiffer plays the stern matriarch Elizabeth, whose fortunes in the fish business have turned sour since rivals Angel Bay, headed by Angelique, became market leaders. A fabulously deadpan Chloë Grace Moretz plays sulky flowergirl Carolyn, who wisps around the dinner hall to T.Rex and spits out sarcastic remarks when she can be bothered to speak at all. Elsewhere there's the live-in shrink Hoffman, played by Helena Bonham Carter, and the hair-raising housekeeper Willie Loomis (very Scooby Doo), played by Jackie Earle Haley. Finally, Jonny Lee Miller stars as the negligent father Roger, whose son David (Gulliver McGrath) is still reeling from his mother's death, and believes that her ghost is wandering the house's labyrinthe halls.

If there's a problem with the wealth of this ensemble, it's that Burton and Grahame-Smith appear wholly uninterested in exploring the deeper roots of their relationships, instead concentrating the drama around Barnabas' reintegration into society and his friction with the vampish Angelique. Elizabeth remains nothing more than a sturdy authority figure, the tensions between her and Roger forever dormant, and the story of the Collins' crumbling business is brushed under the proverbial carpet. Despite her doppelgänger romance with Barnabas, Victoria never develops as more than (very attractive) window dressing, and Dr. Hoffman is treated to a lengthy yet entirely pointless subplot involving blood theft. Burton casts an eye over all of these characters, but never applies them with any personalities to develop, and therefore much of the drama feels flat. So, why is Dark Shadows such a return to form? Because in the moments that it works, it's one of the most compellingly strange and wholly entertaining blockbusters of recent years...

The digital cling-film effect which has plagued Burton's most recent work is entirely absent here, and DP Bruno Delbonnel (Jean-Pierre Jeunet's regular collaborator) offers up cleaner, more defined visual strokes. To complement his work, Production Designer Rick Heinrichs has crafted an extravagant and sumptuous interior world; from the frills of Dr. Hoffman's collar to the rusty shade of Carolyn's shaggy dog carpet, it's impeccable realised. Often the landscape called to mind another of Heinrichs' credits, Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events (Silberling, 2004), for its teetering-on-the-edge-of-insanity architecture, diluted palette and theatrical makeup (come to think of it, Heathcote even resembles a young Emily Browning), although Dark Shadows could never be mistaken for anybody's work other than Burton's. But in one regard, that's its biggest problem. Elfman's score is so familiar that it's almost superfluous, alternating between soft mystic tinkles and crashing drum/violin combos, adding nothing to the film's atmosphere nor the composer's limited repertoire. The 70's soundtrack is used more sparingly and inventively, especially Donovan's 'Season Of The Witch' and some live Alice Cooper cuts. Actually, the best use of music comes in Barnabas and Angelique's exhaustive mid-film romp, set to Barry White's 'You're The First, The Last, My Everything'. It's... oddly kinky.

The screenplay isn't quite as self-aware as one might hope, nor does it crank up the camp as Burton enthusiasts will expect, and fans of the soap opera will demand. For the most part Dark Shadows is played as brooding melodrama, but there are still chuckles to be hard, largely from the one cast member who's completely in on the joke: Eva Green. Perfectly cast, the Paris-born actress brings a smouldering rambunctiousness to the character, finding the perfect mix of feisty and dangerous, comic and tragic. All heaving cleavage and pouting puckers, Green overplays the character just a smidgen, performing theatrical pirouettes with her delectable dialogue, and in the climactic set-piece getting to grips with some fabulous Linda Blair-style head twisting. She's beautiful, smart and menacing, representing in part exactly what the whole of Dark Shadows should have been - just more fun.

Dark Shadows is in cinemas now.


  1. It has some real moments that made me laugh and had me enjoyed, but Burton starts to lose himself by the end, therefore, he lost me. Could have been so much better and the only reason it is as good as it is, is because of Depp's insane performance. Good review Michael.

  2. I wanted to punch Seth Grahame-Smith in the face, and demand back the $25 we spent to watch this boring film.