Sunday 13 May 2012

Review: Dark Shadows (mild spoilers)

CAUTION: Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.

Dark Shadows poster

Dark Shadows (mild spoilers)
113 mins / Dir. Tim Burton

And so, it was with little baggage that I went to see the latest Burton/Depp/Bonham-Carter gothfest. The initial idea hadn't inspired me with confidence, but the trailer amused me. And y'know… that's the seller, right? I've got no problem with the aforementioned name-combo, but I've seen it so many times I'd pretty much lost interest in it as a 'seal of quality'. There are only so many ways in which you can be "dark and quirky", and Burton's bought all the shares in both of them. All that's needed after the premise, is for Johnny Depp to be charming yet completely undemanding*1, and for Helena Bonham-Carter to look kooky and wide-eyed. Sell the merchandising to Claire's Accessories, and we can all move on to the next project, yes?

If that all sounds incredibly cynical, it's because it is. I am prepared to give new Burton films a crack of the whip, but there's always the feeling I've seen them before. Thankfully that feeling is lessened in Dark Shadows, and I suspect that's down to it not being written by Burton himself…

The Plot: The son of a wealthy fishing magnate, Barnabas Collins is cursed by a lovelorn witch to live for eternity, then locked in a coffin for two centuries. He finds himself unearthed in 1972, and as he struggles to adapt to his new surroundings and rebuild his family empire, he discovers that his enemies have not forgotten him…

The Good: Despite my misgivings about Depp, he is on top form in Dark Shadows. Yes, it's a form that we've seen many times before, but it's there nonetheless. What I found more interesting is the feel of the film. It has the dark intent of Interview With The Vampire, mixed with the camp and humour of Rocky Horror, then the location of the New England fishing port sprinkles a hint of H.P. Lovecraft over the top. Demographically, it may not be ticking all the right boxes, but I found it spellbinding.

The whole fish-out-of-water concept of Barnabas finding himself in 1972 is nicely explored, if a little shortlived. While he's quick to understand those times, there's still a nagging sense of alienation, which I suspect will be shared by the younger members of the film's audience. In that respect, it's a good way of getting the kids to bond with Collins, while the older folks are enjoying the soundtrack with a sense of nostalgia. Sure, it's seventies-by-numbers, but any more than that would have been overkill.

While Dark Shadows isn't as laugh-out-loud as the trailer suggested, there were moments when I guffawed audibly (albeit alone, apparently), and there's a strong sense of 'fun' for a story which contains frequent betrayal and murder. And those moments aren't glossed-over at all. When the vampire kills people, you're under no illusion that they're food, and they aren't coming back. The kill-scenes are sparse, but evenly paced enough to remind you of exactly what Barnabas Collins is. It's a bold move that despite his nature, DS pays little heed to general vampire mythos, yet it does work. That's how you do it, Twilight.

I also loved the fact that the Collins family originated from Liverpool, and yet the only trace of a Scouse accent in the entire movie is when Johnny Depp says the word… "Liverpool". Then it's gone, again.

Considering how self-indulgent I find a lot of Burton's work to be, I enjoyed Dark Shadows very much.

In fact, I enjoyed it so much, I made you a picture...

Mr. Barnabas Collins. A vampire.
^^ Click for bigger, 1217*684px, 100kb, Opens in new window ^^

The Bad: It gets a little messy at the film's climax, where the various subplots come together, then the director remembers that they haven't been explained properly (barely even hinted at, in some cases), and quickly cobbles in some exposition and covers the cracks with explosions. More on that in the next section.

I'd happily have had this film be half an hour longer if it meant fleshing it out a little. It was nice to see Christopher Lee in a brief cameo as a fisherman working for Collins' rival company, but it doesn't really go anywhere. That entire strand of the plot doesn't really go anywhere. Since the principal leads end up battering the crap out of each other in Collinwood Mansion, it renders it largely obsolete, in fact. Other strands, like Angelique Bouchard leading 'an angry mob of villagers' to the mansion, and the mother of young David Collins, are set up and then seemingly abandoned. So many toys to play with, and so little time.

The Ugly: It seems to me that there were either too many characters in the Collins family, or great chunks of the screenplay had been thrown away due to time constraints. There are clearly stories waiting to be told with each of the characters, but they're skimmed over at best. The fact that one of the characters is literally sent away in a Yellow Cab between acts two and three, never to be heard of or mentioned again, seems almost unbelievable (but is sadly true). And it's not like the extended Collins family are background-props, they've each been cast with performers who can act, they're just not really given the chance. The sub-stories concerning the family members are slowly eked out over the course of the film, with red-herrings galore, but no real payoff. Worst of all is the backstory of Barnabas' 18th Century love, Josette, and her apparition that appears only to the young Victoria who comes to Collinstown to be a nanny for the family. The connection between the two characters is criminally underused, considering how important it is to the actual plot of the film. The main thrust of the narrative appears to be the constant sparring between Barnabas and his nemesis, Angelique. And even then, the sexual tension is removed half-way through the film, with the scene that you even see in the trailer. So instead of story development, we get many, many shots of Eva Green's cleavage. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it's no way to fill two hours.

Should I wait for the DVD? Visually, it's beautiful (70's era Collinstown in particular), but unless you're a devotee of Burton or Depp, you won't lose too much by watching it at home.

I suspect this film will have a long shelf-life, and deservedly so, but I can't see an opening for a sequel at all. An animated spin-off series, absolutely, but the main thread of the movie has been well and truly unwound, now. I rate it at a very strong 5/7. I found it enormously likeable, but there are flaws (imho) in Dark Shadows that can't be ignored…


*1 A skill that has been the cornerstone of his entire career, no less.

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.

• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

1 comment:

  1. Definitely has its moments of fun, but they all start to go away by the last act when the tone shifts from goofy comedy to campy melodrama and takes all of the steam out of its story. Very lazy direction by Burton but definitely not terrible. Good review.