Movie Review: Dark Shadows

The Collins Family and Friends, circa 1972

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

Tim Burton’s film opens with a thick fog enveloping a centuries-old British harbor. The protagonist’s beloved family has been destroyed, victims of an interloper. The protagonist, imprisoned by that same interloper, is finally freed of his shackles and hopes to exact revenge. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter star, with Bonham Carter playing a character who finds herself experiencing an unrequited crush. And Johnny Depp, sporting a pasty face and moody temperament, yearns for the true love he lost eons ago.

Given that Mr. Burton rarely undertakes sequels (the one exception is 1989′s Batman, followed by 1992′s Batman Returns), then no, this film is not a second look at 2007′s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Other than a guest solo provided by Alice Cooper, the characters don’t sing. Instead of a soundtrack furnished by the brilliant Stephen Sondheim, we get tunes from the likes of Mr. Cooper, The Moody Blues, Donovan and The Carpenters. And Depp himself plays a fish out of water or, rather, a corpse out of box, reawakening after nearly two centuries from a nice long dirt nap. Welcome to the comical, Edward Gorey-esque dark, Dark Shadows.

Burton sketches in the back story with a series of economical sequences: The wealthy Collins family, having made their fortune from a fishing empire, set sail in 1750 for America, intent on building up a coastal Maine seaport that they name Collinsport. Two decades later, with the town thriving and the Collins’ enjoying their vast fortune, their young son Barnabas has grown into an educated, dashing playboy (Depp). While he loves Josette (Bella Heathcote) and intends to marry her, he dallies with housemaid Angelique (Eva Green). A wrong dally, if ever there was one. Angelique just so happens to be a witch, and will have none of it. She puts a spell on Josette, and turns Barnabas into a vampire. Worse, since he continues to spurn her, Angelique entombs him alive.

Flash forward, Barnabas’ coffin is discovered during an excavation, the hapless workers open it and surprise! out pops Johnny in the Box.

Time hasn’t been all that good to either the 1970s’ Collins or the family estate. Actually, it’s a toss-up to say which has deteriorated more. But Barnabas, ever loyal to the code of family first, is determined to put the Collins name right, or die trying. (Obviously a figure of speech, since he’s sort of dead already …)

The movie’s tongue-in-cheek is firmly implanted, with jokes a-plenty referring to the outrageous styles of 1972. Troll dolls, lava lamps, macramé, mustard-colored shag rugs, teased hair, go-go boots and yes, Alice Cooper, are all on parade, with Depp’s one eyebrow frequently lifting in either surprise or dismay. However, the actor’s comedic chops aside, Seth Grahame-Smith’s screenplay has some serious problems.

Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins in "Dark Shadows"

Vampire lore requires that certain rules be set. How much daylight can a particular vampire withstand? How about nourishment? Must it be human flesh, and no substitutes? If substitutes, then is it lower life forms only, or synthetic formulae? What is the methodology regarding “turning” a human into a vampire versus outright murder? Dark Shadows delineates none of it – and when we first see Barnabas appear at the breakfast table, it’s surprising. While we discern from his actions that he can survive in indirect sun (wearing sunglasses and a hat, carrying a shade umbrella), how does it affect him? Does it weaken him? The facts are never, um, brought to light.

While the above might not seem all that important, the film’s concomitant silence regarding the vampire’s feeding habits is deadly. Perhaps Burton & Co. hoped to surprise us by remaining vague. But the concept backfires, decreasing any underlying sense of threat. When our earnest, amusing hero-vampire first strikes out and kills, we rationalize away his violent actions by ascribing them to fear, disorientation and a 200-year thirst. However in the second act, when Barnabas attacks an entire group of harmless folks without any provocation whatsoever (particularly since we’re not clued in to the rules of his appetite), we lose empathy. It is that loss of empathy, that distancing of ourselves from the protagonist, that drains the lifeblood out of this project. A film can have flaws: here, it’s a silly script, too many underwritten characters, and an unnecessarily elongated third act … but nothing nails the coffin shut quite like an unlikeable Barnabas Collins.

As for the ensemble, while Bonham Carter has her moments (bringing to mind a slightly more attractive version of Nurse Diesel from Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety), Michelle Pfeiffer is wasted as the friendly but bland relative/confidante. Eva Green as the conniving, bombshell witch and Jackie Earle Haley as the loyal, loopy caretaker shine in their respective roles; however Chloë Grace Moretz is unfortunately stuck in a pouty, one-note performance.

We can laugh at the jokes. We can admire the production design. But without allowing us an enduring affection for Barnabas, Dark Shadows is, ultimately, woefully anemic.

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Rating on a scale of 5 Edward TalonHands: 2.5

Release date: May 11, 2012
Directed by: Tim Burton
Screenplay by: Seth Grahame-Smith
Story by: John August and Seth Grahame-Smith
Based on the television series created by: Dan Curtis
Cast: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Jackie Earle Haley, Jonny Lee Miller, Bella Heathcote, Chloë Grace Moretz
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 113 minutes

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 450+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

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