Dark Shadows (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Dark Shadows (2012)

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

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Let me start with listing the unsurprising (yet necessary to point out) things about Dark Shadows before I dive into the irregularities:

  1. It is a Tim Burton movie.
  2. It stars Johnny Depp.
  3. Danny Elfman does the score.
  4. It's friggin' weird.

Point #4 stands some elucidation, of course, because Dark Shadows is an unexpectedly weird kind of weird, which is a weird thing to say by any account. Burton, director of films like Ed Wood and the '89 version of Batman, has most recently taken upon himself to remake any property that looks like it would just be fun to do, resulting in unpleasant oddities like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Sweeney Todd and the aggressively dismal Alice in Wonderland.

These have certainly been odd (the Fudderwacken from Alice certainly comes to mind), but they've still remained remarkably commercial in their plotting, disappointing plenty of people who watched Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands and wished for the story of a lonely outsider to once again be told by a lonely outsider and not, you know, one of the most popular directors working in the world today. A foolhardy wish, but with someone with as much visual sense as Burton, a lot of people can't help but feel robbed when his stories continually seem to be nothing but thin soup for him to hang his shadow-obsessed sense of visual style upon.

This is the money shot. No, literally, they're about to be crushed by a mountain of money, Scrooge McDuck style.

Dark Shadows is still yet another property that Burton is hanging his drapes on. However, the property as presented here is just strange enough to warrant these touches. Based on a soap opera from the late 60's (unseen by me, but beloved by a few that I know) and the spin-off film House of Dark Shadows, the franchise told the story of the vampire Barnabas Collins and his family as they battled innumerable plot twists involving the supernatural. The original series is described by Wikipedia as being 'campy' and 'dark', and, oh, hey, guess what words pretty much describe Burton's Dark Shadows.

The innumerable plot twists have been taken down to numerable here, but still a rather large amount of numerable for a feature length film. We follow Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) as he's transformed into a vampire by the witch Angelique (Eva Green) and buried alive in a coffin. He's reawoken in the early 1970's, where he finds his family's ancestral mansion dilapidated and the last leafs on his family tree severely lacking.

The biggest and most obvious fault of Shadows is that it never achieves the level of sincerity it needs to reach a connection to the attitudes it espouses. This statement sounds like a handful of gobbledegook, but for a movie that purports to be about the power of family and the bonds of blood, it doesn't do any establishing of their connections on a surface level. Lip service is the most that the family gets, with only Michelle Pfeiffer's flustered matriarch Elizabeth registering as anyone who beats to the same tune as the screenplay.

The rest of the disaffected Collins family-- devious Roger (Johnny Lee Miller), rebellious Carolyn (Chloƫ Grace Moretz), and young David-- are all suffering from the family curse that's left them in various states of madness. Instead of a plot line evolving as they learn and grow together, we instead get sidebars of them talking to Barnabas, either about his cluelessness to modern society or as sounding boards for whatever is happening between him and Angelique at a given moment, and then wandering to the background, ready for the next round of montages.

I guess it's time to sexy it up in this review.

Which brings me to a rather large issue with the film: there's no momentum. This is a movie where characters have a conversation, and two scenes later it seems that they have the same conversation; the romance between Barnabas and demure Victoria (Bella Heathcoate) happens around the edges, and though it serves as the film's emotional climax, it was subservient to the Barnabas/Angelique rivalry for so long, it serves to be surprising rather than satisfying.

Now some people I've seen have called the film out for this, but I can't shake the feeling it's intentional. It's a movie based on a soap opera, and traction is antithetical to the very concept of serialized drama. Is Tim Burton being indifferent to the audience or slavishly devoted to the source material? I have no idea.

Since it spends so much time trying to intermingle sex, violence, and horror, though, it's hard to imagine that Burton was being reckless in crafting it. The visual design, like much of his work, is unmistakable, blurring a rainbow of gray with the loudest of colors. The film's setting is both an advantage and a curse, as Burton uses the hues of the 1970's and meshes them with the gothic trappings of the Collinwood mansion to great effect. This gives it a Warhol feel, where things are exaggerated to a ridiculous degree-- this isn't Ed Wood, but still feels as reckless as his animated offerings like Corpse Bride.

Burton's ideas of the 1970's mainly falls along the lines of a bunch of idiotic innocent people, with the only difference between them and us that these people dressed grotesquely.

The sex part I mentioned above is notable. Being well past 17 and with no child of my own, I've become completely ignorant to the ratings classifications of most of the movies I see. However there is at least one blowjob joke and a rather crazy sex scene that I was rather amazed at. That Johnny Depp plays a character who is a sexual focal point for women probably shouldn't surprise me as much as it does in the film, but since the movie is trying so hard to sell itself as the story of tragic romance, these dalliances seem out of jarringly out of place.

But 'jarringly out of place' is also 'weird' and brings me back to my main point. The film is weird, but I'm not entirely convinced, this time, it's weird just for the sake of it.

Were Burton and Depp not sold on the main love story, involving Barnabas and Victoria and their adventures in predestination and vampirism? It looks that way. In fact, so much of the film gets caught up in the idea that Barnabas and Angelique are monsters that the rest of its platitudes subside easily. Green's portrayal of Angelique is such a voracious vamp that it's hard for the viewer's imagination to escape her gravity, but she's also such a completely two dimensional character that she achieves the weird distinction of being both the worst and best part of the film.

The lava lamps are a nice touch. Again, there's nothing wrong with the film visually (except maybe an overabundance of unneeded effects).

What works in Dark Shadows works impeccably well. The opening (sans prologue) which Victoria travels by train through autumn forests, practicing her fake name while Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin" blares is evocative and intriguing. In fact, Victoria's character comes across as so appealing that it's disappointing when she's shifted to the background for most of the film's running time.

The soundtrack for the film is remarkably good, including Danny Elfman's score. He's been ridiculed before for harping on the same general themes, but he manages to insert a fair amount of quotations of distinctly 70's instrumentals, bringing to mind "Kolchak: The Night Stalker" and a bevy of Hammer horror films with their blood red designs and cardboard-grandeur aesthetic.

But, in spite of those bright spots and just enough, you know, weirdness to float along, the sum of its parts is underwhelming, particularly a prolonged climax that owes more to the 1994 film Casper than I'd like to have to recall ever again. Like most of Burton's recent work, if it's a visual feast you want, you'll get it. If it's any variety of emotional nourishment you seek, look elsewhere.

Geez, okay, I'll wrap it up. Sorry.

The crucial scene in the film has to be when Barnabas communes with a bunch of hippies for a night to relieve the burdens of his soul and to feed. Here's where the title of the film is invoked, which is bizarre since this point in the film mostly serves to reiterate the plot for the umpteenth time and spur Barnabas to further chase Victoria for what is also the umpteenth time. Is the tragedy here that this is a comedic moment that must become tragic? Is Barnabas simply destined to ruin everything around him, no matter how good his intentions?

Pretty much, yeah. Especially if he has sex with it. But, still, there are so many currents in the film that even this solution leaves me wanting.

What is the ultimate moral of Dark Shadows? For some reason, the only thing that comes to mind when I ponder this is Apocalypse Now-era Dennis Hopper shaking his head and muttering, "The world is fucked up, man. It's just... fucked up." Dennis, I don't think I could put it any better myself.

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Posted by Danny

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  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 Danny.

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