Friday, October 26, 2012

Dark Shadows

Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Jackie Earle Haley, Jonny Lee Miller, Chloe Grace Moretz, Bella Heathcote
Running Time: 113 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Dark Shadows starts off promisingly enough, with a prologue that's actually somewhat intriguing and an initial 40 minutes that teases the possibility that Tim Burton may have finally made a great movie again. Then it's all downhill, as the tone, which was initially so sure and steady, goes all over the place. At points it's just not clear what Burton was going for. Sometimes it feels like a Gothic horror movie while at others the comedy is so broad it may as well be a remake of The Munsters. What's not in question is that as far as TV-to-film adaptations go, at least this one seemed like a reasonable idea and it's understandable why Burton wanted to tackle it. But it's also equally frustrating when you have a director with so much talent and all these great ideas who can't seem to translate it into a compelling narrative with characters we care about. It happens over and over again with him to the point that it's difficult to even pinpoint a solution anymore (though taking a break from working with Depp might be a start). This is a fascinating near-miss, filled with elements that could have made for a great film and a single performance that really deserves to be in one. And having not seen the original 1960's cult supernatural soap it's based on, I'm comfortable wagering a guess that it's probably excellent. You can see the shell of something special and different here, especially in the first half hour. It would all seem to be right in Burton's wheelhouse, but once again his propensity for favoring production design over storytelling sinks him.     

The story tells of Barnabus Collins (Johnny Depp), who arrives to America from Liverpool in the mid 1700's and has an affair with the family maid Angelique (Eva Green), before spurning her and falling in love with Josette du Pres (Bella Heathcote). But an angry, jealous Angelique reveals herself to be a witch, cursing Josette into jumping off a cliff to her death and sentencing Barnabus to a life as an immortal vampire. Buried alive and locked in a chain coffin by Angelique for 196 years, he finally awakens in 1972, discovering that his cursed descendants now reside in his Collinsport, Maine manor. There's his cousin and family matriarch, Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), her rebellious 15-year-old daughter Caroline (Chloe Grace Moretz), Roger's troubled 10-year-old son David (Gulliver McGrath), and his psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter). They're joined by the grounds' creepy caretaker, Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley) and their newest arrival, Victoria Winters (Heathcote again), a mysterious girl who's been hired as David's governess and bares more than a passing resemblance to Barnabus' dead lover Josette. Staying with the family under the guise of a distant relative, Barnabus begins to fall for her. But Angelique's still in town posing as a successful business woman, and if she can't have him, she'll destroy him, along with the rest of the Collins family.

The casting feels spot-on and as aggravating as it is seeing Depp collaborating with Burton for what feels like the hundredth time, he at least seems well suited for a role he's supposedly dreamed of playing for years. It's just unfortunate that his spooky, pale-faced appearance makes the role seem indistinguishable from his turns in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd, Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow and Alice in Wonderland. So, Barnabus is basically a composite of every Tim Burton character he's played. I'd like to say Depp does something totally different this time around, but it's really just more of the same, which isn't to say he's terrible. In fact, the most interesting portion of the film is the culture clash that takes place when 200 year-old Barnabus wakes up in the 1970's and must adjust to this new lifestyle around him. Just about the best decision Burton made was to set this in that decade since the setting becomes a time travel trip for the viewer as much as the story's protagonist. Watching Barnabus find his way around these surroundings, his observations of the music and fashions and seeing how his dysfunctional family responds to his resurrection, provide the satisfying moments.With a soundtrack featuring the likes of The Moody Blues, Donovan, Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper (who cameos) a good case can be made that the music is actually better than the movie, providing a steady stream of entertainment the story often lacks, especially in its last hour. Frequent Burton collaborator Danny Elfman also provides a creepy, catchy score that captures just the right tone for the material.

An excellent musical montage set to The Carpenter's "Top of the World" that pretty much signifies the film's last great moment before it deteriorates before our eyes and Burton's worst impulses take over. The script seems to abandons the compelling "fish-out-of water" story and Baranbus' connection to Victoria (who may or may not be his reincarnated lover) in favor of his love/hate feud with Angelique. There's a silly, over-the-top sex scene and everything that follows is practically too much of a mess to describe. Eva Green does her best to make it work though, giving what's far and away the best performance in the film by managing to lend many dimensions to a fairly one-dimensional character. Seductive, creepy and funny, she successfully turns Angelique into kind of a live-action cartoon, proving to have a great knack for physical comedy as well as dark drama. A haunting Bella Heathcote excels too in her dual role, despite being introduced as a major character then promptly forgotten about by the film's second half. Chloe Moretz is as melodramatic as can be as angry teen Caroline, though there's a development late involving her that comes completely out of left field and seems to make little sense at all. And this is probably the closest Helena Bonham Carter will ever come to playing at least a partially normal character in one of her husband's films. Yet, her Dr. Hoffman stills seems like a wacked out weirdo, which is probably appropriate.

The ending heavily hints at a sequel that won't likely happen anytime soon due to this film's disappointing financial returns. The expectation was clearly to build a franchise but adapting a TV series (especially one with which most modern audiences are unfamiliar) is tough because you can get way with a lot more when you have weeks and months to build a story. Supposedly, the supernatural weren't introduced in the original until well into the show's run, which had to have been a fun shock for viewers. An updated feature film adaptation has no such luxury, highlighting one of many advantages TV has over film right now. This is definitely a case where there are a lot of interesting ideas and fanciful performances that just don't connect in a cohesive, engaging story like they should. The set-up is perfect but when it comes to delivering on it, Burton drops the ball. If there's good news it's that the first hour of the movie proves that he's still got it. He always seems to be at his creative peak when telling deeply personal original stories, but frequently falters when adapting previously existing material for a payday. Dark Shadows feels like something strangely in between. It's questionable placing the blame entirely on Burton when so many other hands are on deck and factors at play in determining this project's success, but he's an unusual case in that he's the kind of filmmaker whose visual influence and style permeates through every facet of the work. For better or worse, his imprint is unmistakable. It's just that lately, it's been for worse.        

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