Dark Shadows

Posted: May 21, 2012 by Jenny Dreadful in Film, Reviews

This review was originally written for Cinedelphia. You can find that article here.

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My name is Jenny and I’m a “recovering goth.”  (Hi, Jenny.)  Like many weirdos my age, I don’t identify with subcultures much anymore and just dress and obsess as I please.  I did my time in black lipstick and cemeteries, though, and I still wear far too much eyeliner.  Why am I telling you about the angsty fashion of my youth instead of getting on with this movie review?  It’s my way of telling my spooky friends out there that I get it.  I loved Burton too.  Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas… his uniquely crafted world of both darkness and delight was magic once.

I think most of us can sadly agree that the present Burton formula…

  • An overly serious but comical Johnny Depp
  • A pretty but unhinged Helena Bonham Carter
  • An off-kilter score from Danny Elfman

… has become predictable and tired.  Between my growing disillusion with Burton’s work and my disdain for the industry’s addiction to remakes, I didn’t have high hopes for his latest offering, Dark Shadows, a comedic send-up of a long-running supernatural soap-opera from the 60s.  In fact, I expected it to be terrible.  It is with great hesitation and fear that I report my findings.  I laughed my ass off and had a fantastic time.

The original series, a gothic tale unfolding in a creepy mansion, went through many changes over the years.  Although no supernatural elements were originally present, the world of Dark Shadows was eventually inhabited by ghosts, witches, werewolves and, most prominently, a vampire named Barnabas Collins.  For years, the undead Collins (played by the late Jonathan Frid) stalked his family estate, schemed, and sought the rebirth of Josette, his long-lost love.  Confession time.  With all due respect to my elders and the charm of 60s media, I find watching this show to be terribly dull.  I tried.  From a distance, however, I can appreciate the atmosphere, melodrama and campy performances.  I gather that most fans of the cult program similarly enjoy it for occasional silliness as well as mysteries and monsters.  Those fans may find some amusement here in Tim Burton’s adaptation, which acknowledges the show’s goofier attributes and plays them for laughs.  Fans who take the show quite seriously, who want the property to be treated with somber respect, I have bad news for you.  You’ll be furious.

In the new film, Johnny Depp’s Barnabas escapes a coffin that has imprisoned him for almost 200 years (196 to be exact) and returns to Collinwood, his family home, in 1972.  The expected “fish out of water” jokes follow as this relic from the 1700′s tries to cope with the modern age and connect with his descendants (Michelle Pfeiffer, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jonny Lee Miller), but this isn’t the entire focus of the film as I’d feared.  He soon discovers that the competition crushing the Collins family business is none other than Angelique (Eva Green), the spiteful and powerful witch responsible for both his undead transformation and long underground captivity.  A sexy battle of wills, bloodsucking and other hijinks ensue.

Dark Shadows is surprisingly funny.  Featuring hilarious monster sex and other erotic exploits, the humor is unexpectedly raunchy too.  Despite Burton’s annoying tendency to use the same cast repeatedly, one has to admit that Depp’s deadpan delivery is always excellent.  It probably isn’t a shock that he looks great either.  All dreaminess aside, his costuming, makeup, and body-language reminiscent of classics like Nosferatu and Lugosi are sure to delight vampire fans with a sense of humor.  Even the color of the blood is a fun reference; the bright red paint seen so often in 70s horror classics (e.g., Hammer Horror, Argento).  Of course, the lavish sets, marvelous costume designs and beautiful vistas we’ve come to expect from Tim Burton are all present and accounted for, but it’s just window-dressing for a silly romp through stereotypical vampire country.

In classic Burton-style, however, the last act is confused and disappointing. Ridiculous subplots appear from nowhere and fall flat.  Too many ideas are shoehorned into the big climax.  He just wanted to do too much.  Even worse, you realize that the film expects you to actually care about the characters and their big romance at the end.  Not unlike a good buddy expecting a kiss after a fun day out, the results are unexpected and embarrassing.

I thought we were just having a good time, Burton.  Why do you have to make it awkward?

Despite my lack of enthusiasm once the credits rolled, I had a great time with Dark Shadows.  Fans enraged by the concept of having a good-natured laugh at the original show instead of playing it straight should keep a safe distance.  Anyone in the mood for some wacky vampire jokes could do much worse.  Without getting to look at Johnny Depp.

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