Monday, May 14, 2012

dark (eye) shadows

All the girls love Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), but few love him with the maniacal fury of witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green). Tim Burton's Dark Shadows is one of his most approachable films in a long time. It manages to incorporate many elements from the original '60s gothic soap opera — actually more than most fans of the soap may be suspecting. But the tone is pure Burton. More Goth than Gothic, and downright goofy and even creepy at times.

Barnabas does his supernatural homework
Depp's Barnabas lays out the bare bones of the plot (from a script by Pride And Prejudice And Zombies' Seth Grahame-Smith) in an opening voice-over:
"My name is Barnabas Collins. Two centuries ago, I made Collinwood my home... until a jealous witch cursed me, condemning me to the shadows, for all time."
The rest of the film (mostly) follows the romantic problems of Barnabas. He has a fling with the beautiful young witch Angelique (Eva Green), who is obsessed with him, but he doesn't love her, and is soon head-over-heels in love with the sweet Josette (Bella Heathcote). This only spells disaster for all, as Angelique eliminates both Josette and Barnabas's parents and curses her ex-lover to eternal life as a vampire. Cue the trippy music and it's 1972 where a local excavation uncovers Barnabas's coffin. After a little mass-murder and midnight snack, the vampire heads for his beloved family seat, Collinwood, like a supernatural homing pigeon.

Burton has always been more interested in visuals than story, and Dark Shadows reflects this. Where the director falters is in his characterization. He gives Depp free reign, of course, and the actor throws himself wholeheartedly into the role of a man whose passions and sense of family can survive across the centuries. The only consistent plotline is Angelique's revenge, which Green embraces with enthusiastic fury. When Depp and Green are together onscreen sparks fly. But Barnabas's interactions with all the other cast members, especially Maggie Evans/Victoria Winters (also played by Bella Heathcote), are rather pale. Characters are introduced, and then as quickly dropped, as Burton heads onto the next set piece. Is Victoria a reincarnation of Josette? The audience is never told. Maybe Burton forgot. Helena Bonham Carter tries to inject the drunken Dr. Julia Hoffman with some verve, and there is a scene between Depp and Michelle Pfieffer, as Collins matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, that manages, with a nod and a wink to the original series, to capture the over-the-top melodramatic dialogue that made it such a cult classic. Chloe Grace Moretz, who has been wonderful in other films (Let Me In, Hugo) is dreadful here as written — one-note and dull as Elizabeth's bored and angtsy teenager Carolyn Stoddard. A last-minute plot twist almost excuses her character's bad behavior, but feels tacked on and too little, too late.

Burton has always been faithful to his favorite actors, and horror fans will be thrilled to see Christopher Lee, no stranger to vampire films himself, in a cameo midway through the film. Fans of the original Dark Shadows series will also be happy to see some of its stars briefly featured in a party scene, but it went by quickly and I was disappointed to not be able to spot original Barnabas Jonathan Frid. I did see Lara Parker (original Angelique), David Selby (Quentin) and Kathryn Leigh Scott (original Josette/Maggie) in the background.

The sets, costumes, and Michelle Pfieffer look fabulous
Where Burton does excel, as always, are the visuals. The look of the film is fantastic, managing to both spoof and evoke the '70s while still keeping everything believable. The town of Collinsport and the fabulously run-down Collinwood mansion, with its secret rooms and passages, look both wonderful and real. When seen in IMAX, the talents of production designer Rick Heinrichs, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, and costume designer Colleen Atwood, are especially noticeable. Dark Shadows is far from a masterpiece like Burton's brilliant Ed Wood, but it is enjoyable, and happily has more in common with another one of his better films, Beetlejuice, than the more recent and truly awful Alice in Wonderland.

The one area where the look of the film leaves me cold is the make-up. The pancake is laid on so thick on Depp that he at times seems more clown than vampire, which begs the question why some of the Collins family seem surprised when his true identity is revealed. Did they really think he was human? Thick white make-up is another Burton trademark. The guy likes what he likes and he's not likely to change his tastes at this late date. Maybe he has never gotten over Nicholson's Joker ...

The darkest shadows are on Johnny Depp's cheeks and eyes
Dark Shadows is part comedy, part romance, part horror film. Its humor is more along the line of chuckles than belly laughs, and Burton doesn't whitewash its darker roots. Hero Barnabas is a monster, and when his thirst hits him, he tends to slaughter on a grand scale. As much as he yearns for romance, it's hard not to agree with Angelique that the two might be better suited together than Barnabas and the prim Victoria. The film is strange and a little disjointed, and kind of loses it when the CGI takes over near the end, but it also doesn't look like anything else out in theaters at the moment. That is always what Burton has going for him. He may be just doing variations on a theme, but it's his theme, and he's sticking to it, with Depp and Bonham Carter happily along for the ride.

First start with white pancake, then add lots of dark shadows around the eyes — CW from top: Christopher Walken in Sleepy Hollow, Depp in Alice in Wonderland, Jack Nicholson in Batman, Winona Ryder and Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice, Lisa Marie in Mars Attacks!, Danny Devito and Michelle Pfieffer in Batman Returns.

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