Director: Tim Burton
Runtime: 113 minutes
Dark Shadows is a strange breed of film. This adaptation of the cult soap opera show is not as stylishly bizarre as one might expect. Quite the opposite, in fact, with director Tim Burton continuing to his descent into more of a brand and less of a fresh and hungry filmmaker. What makes this out-of-place summer film odd is both how glaring its problems are and how entertaining the film remains despite these flaws.
When we first come upon Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) in the 17th Century, he is wealthy, beloved and madly in love with his bride-to-be, Josette duPres (Bella Heathcote). He has it all, until an evil and jealous witch, Angelique (Eva Green), takes it all from him. Barnabas’s punishment for not loving Angelique is pretty hefty: the death of his parents, the loss of his love, transformation into a vampire and a coffin for nearly 200 years.
When the thirsty vampire awakens, the film turns into a fish-out-of-water story, the royal Barnabas having to adjust to the ways of the 1970s, from dealing with frightening lava lamps to the modern, liberated woman, his latest love being Victoria Winters (again, Bella Heathcote). Barnabas swears to return his family business to glory, to save the new generation of Collins': Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller), Roger’s disturbed son David (Gulliver McGrath) and Carolyn Stoddard (Chloe Grace Moretz).
Author-turned-screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith – whose adaptation of his own entertaining work, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, we will see next month – stuffs a lot in. Although I am unfamiliar with the show, it is clear the writer is attempting to form a narrative around the serie’s greatest hits (there were over 1,000 episodes after all). The first act feels like an introduction to another Burton classic, and then hijinks in the narrative occur, breaking any early promises made.
For one, as mentioned, there is far too much going on, and even with the drama-like pacing, not much of the drama or relationships are given time to grow. Conflicts, such as Roger Collins’s absence in his son’s life, are introduced and then rapidly wrapped up. When Roger leaves his son, there is zero impact. We don’t know most of these characters. Miller does his best to give human life to the character, but he, along with Helena Bonham Carter as Dr. Hoffman, are stock, background characters.
Secondly, the rules and character motivations are a tad too muddled. Burton seems unsure of what to do with Victoria Winters, a role Heathcote adds real elegance and genuineness to. Is Victoria meant to be a reincarnation of Josette duPres? Smith and Burton imply such, but the film or Barnabas don’t seem to care if she is.
By the dwindling end, most of the conflicts gets resolved through a series of Deus ex Machinas, plot devices and turns with little to no set-up. By this time, Burton has clocked out of the picture. The climax turns into a “fight,” and it is as if the director could not care less about this “set piece” he’s established. It’s like the horrendous final battle with the Jabberwocky we saw in Alice in Wonderland, where Burton shows no eye, pace, or interest in building an exciting set piece. The director knows style, laughs and tension, but action he does not.
The only relationship which has payoff is between Barnabas and Angelique, the two most well-defined characters of the film. Green relishes every line, sneer and laugh, making for a fantastic villain. Unlike most villains we’ll see this summer, we know her motivation, find empathy for her and she provides an actual threat to our protagonist. And Barnabas matches that threat, Burton and Smith allowing him to act as what he is: a vampire. Barnabas kills innocent people in this story, and he does about as much harm as Angelique. Barnabas is a family man, but he is also a sex-loving killer.
Depp, of course, is a key factor in what makes Dark Shadows overcome its slippery narrative. The frequent Burton collaborator embraces the high emotions of Barnabas while also finding the funny in the idea of a Dracula in the 1970s.
Dark Shadows is now in wide release.
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