Directed by Tim Burton
Distributed by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
I grew up on Tim Burton flicks. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure played non-stop in my house when I was just a tyke (I managed at some point to memorize the “Tequila” dance and frequently performed it to the annoyance of any nearby adult). Beetlejuice was one of the very first films I ever caught in a theatre (leaving me awed), while Burton’s Batman made a lifelong comic book fan out of me. To this day, I find his Batman Returns to be the best take on that character from the 90s run of Bat-films, Edward Scissorhands still stands as one of the greatest fairy tales ever, and Big Fish made this grown man sob like a child in an auditorium ultimately full of weepers. I absolutely adore Ed Wood, Sweeney Todd, Mars Attacks, and Sleepy Hollow. Hell, I don’t even understand all the hate that Alice in Wonderland gets (though, okay…Planet of the Apes blew).
In fact, I usually bristle when people drop into “too cool for school” mode when mentioning Burton’s work. You know, those people who dismiss Burton’s films because he may (or may not) have fallen into a bit of a rut, playing the same visual notes over and over no matter what story he’s telling. I almost always become defensive, arguing that Burton’s visual tricks never upstage the storytelling or performances. And that while his style is key to his oeuvre, he is not simply a case of “style over substance”.
It’s going to be much harder to fight that battle after watching Dark Shadows.
Based on the ridiculously popular 1960s soap opera of the same name, which was previously remade as a superior (though short-lived) early 90s NBC series, Dark Shadows tells the tale of Barnabas Collins (Depp), a wealthy young womanizer of the 18th century whose pioneering family helped to build the coastal fishing town that’s named in their honor. Barnabas catches the eye (and heart) of Angelique (Green, yowza), a powerful young witch who attempts to win Barnabas’ love. When he eventually falls for the beautiful Josette Du Pres (Heathcote), Angelique uses her powers to murder Josette and curse Barnabas with vampirism. Leading a mob, Angelique has the newly undead Barnabas chained into a coffin and buried, entombing him for what she assumes will be an eternity.
Cut to 1972. Barnabas is accidentally freed by a number of construction workers building, of all things, a new McDonald’s. After drinking the crew dry, Barnabas finds himself in a strange new world full of modern trappings he mistakes for witchcraft and deviltry, leading to a number of amusing “fish out of water” moments. He eventually makes his way to Collinwood, his family’s sprawling mansion, now the residence of the remaining members of his family. There he finds Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Pfeiffer, fantastic here), the matriarch; her daughter, sullen teenager Carolyn (Moretz); Elizabeth’s sleazy brother Roger (Miller); and Roger’s troubled son David (McGrath). Barnabas finds his descendants in financial ruin, and barters with Elizabeth: He will grant her the hidden family fortune to reinstate the Collins name to its former glory, so long as she allows him to be a part of her (and his) family’s lives. Of course, she agrees.
A man out of time, Barnabas does his best to reintegrate and even attempts to court Victoria Winters (also Heathcote), David’s nanny and likely reincarnation of Barnabas’ lost love Josette. This leads to an inevitable confrontation with Angie Bouchard (Green again, yowza as well), Elizabeth’s business rival, who is actually an ageless Angeligue in disguise. Upon seeing him again, Angelique gives Barnabas an ultimatum: love her or simply watch as she uses her considerable powers to destroy what’s left of the Collins family.
Being a fan of the original series and the 90s revisit, I was ecstatic at hearing that Burton and Depp would be tackling the property. Surely the men who gave us the somber and horrific Sleepy Hollow and Sweeney Todd would do justice to the tale of Barnabas Collins, romantic villain and eventual tragic antihero. Instead, bafflingly, the men decided to infuse the story with the kind of loopy humor that wouldn’t have been out of place in Scissorhands or Mars Attacks. My initial viewing of the film’s trailer left me pale, what with its emphasis on Barnabas’ humorous reactions to the modern world, all set to Barry White and “Bang a Gong”.
Oddly, however, it wasn’t the humor that killed the movie for me. In fact, the humor actually kinda works. Fans of Burton’s darkly comic sensibilities will find much to love here. I’m not saying that all of the funny bits work, as dialogue intended to be amusing falls flat even as the sight gags draw chuckles. Still, the comedy certainly works more often than I thought it would.
The cast, too, is just fantastic. Even if Depp’s portrayal of Barnabas does seem to carry notes of Sweeney or Sparrow from time to time, he does a masterful job of juggling the humor and horror of his character’s situation. Also great is Pfeiffer, who plays Elizabeth as a strong-willed, tough as nails mother who’d do anything to restore her family’s honor, even if that means making a deal with the devil (or vampire, in this case). She may not be the lead, or have the showiest role, but Pfeiffer’s performance is the strongest in the film.
Jackie Earle Haley, Chloë Grace Moretz, and Jonny Lee Miller all put in great work and appear to be having a blast in the film. Gulliver McGrath does a fine job as young David, and Eva Green steals most scenes she’s in with her wicked, seductive, yet emotionally damaged villainess. Sadly, Helena Bonham Carter is given little to do in the film, which is both a shame for the distinguished actress and her character, who is quite important in the Shadows lore.
As with all of Burton’s films, Shadows is drop-dead gorgeous. Between longtime collaborator Rick Heinrich’s amazing production design and Bruno Delbonnel’s lush cinematography, the film may be one of the best looking movies in the director’s filmography. And, as expected, Danny Elfman’s score (review here) doesn’t disappoint. If only the script had measured up to every other aspect of this production.
The script, you see, is what ultimately torpedoes the entire flick. I have no hatred for writer Seth Grahame-Smith. His books are amusing (especially the underrated and quite funny How to Survive a Horror Movie), and I even kinda enjoyed the film version of his Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter this past summer. But yikes, his work here is terrible, and the script is just a mess. If the shooting script was more the result of studio tampering, then I hope the scribe forgives me for being too harsh. But if not, then I pray he sticks to writing books and stays far away from screenwriting from here on out (this includes the long-rumored sequel to Beetlejuice, which he should have no part of).
The biggest problem with the script isn’t the frequently lame gags (which, again, the actors often sell quite well) or even the numerous plot holes large enough to drive a Dragula through. No, the biggest problem with the script is that it’s entirely unfocused and seems to have no idea who its lead character is. Is it Barnabas, whose tragic backstory opens the film? Or is it Victoria Winters, whose eyes we’re meant to see the strange tale through?
Well, of course it’s Barnabas. That’s the character that Burton and Depp obviously connected with most, and of course the film’s biggest star would be its lead. Except, as Victoria was the heroine of the original series (for a while, anyway), an effort is made to ensure that she remains the audience’s focal point, at least at the film’s beginning. As the story progresses, Barnabas moves front and center, and Victoria doesn’t merely recede into the background, she disappears for about forty minutes of screen time. And all the while the script tries to convince us that there’s a burgeoning romance between the two, but with only one of the characters onscreen (!).
If only the script had been given another pass, perhaps by another writer, I think there’s a chance that Dark Shadows could have been really fantastic. Certainly, all of the other elements are in place. And therein lies my beef with Burton: The man shouldn’t have gone into a production (especially such an expensive one) with such a dodgy blueprint. It seems as though he made sure that the film would contain all of the features that make a movie uniquely him and didn’t bother with, you know, telling a good story. A shame, as there was likely only the one chance that this property would receive the big budget treatment it deserves, and it’s been squandered.
And if I may digress – what the hell is it with this year? Every hotly anticipated movie with a master filmmaker at the helm has ended up disappointing me (and many others, by most accounts). Not because of the craftsmanship, but the weak screenplays. First Shadows, then Prometheus, and then The Dark Knight Rises. All expensive, all beautifully made, all with scripts that are so riddled with basic, easily fixed problems that it boggles the mind they were shot as is. Digression over.
Regardless of the movie’s faults, Warner Bros. has rewarded Dark Shadows with a pretty great release on disc. The Blu’s image is truly stunning, with a perfectly crisp picture, beautiful colors, and dark-as-pitch blacks. It’s a wonderful representation of the film’s theatrical exhibition. The DTS-HD 5.1 audio is no slouch either, with a super-detailed track that captures the softest of noises (porcelain skin cracking) to the loudest (explosions galore during the finale).
The bonus features are solid, if not extensive. There is a batch of Focus Points, which can be watched throughout the movie or accessed as individual mini-docs from the main menu. These include: Becoming Barnabas, a five-minute look at the various inspirations for Depp’s performance; Welcome to Collinsport, a glimpse at Rick Heinrichs’ production design and how an entire seaside town was built on a studio backlot; The Collinses: Every Family Has its Demons focuses on the non-Barnabas members of the Collins family; Reliving a Decade finds the cast discussing the time period (1972), the music, and Colleen Atwood’s brilliant costume work; Angelique: A Witch Scorned has actress Eva Green chatting about her witchy villainess; Alice Cooper Rocks Collinwood! shows…uh, Alice Cooper rocking Collinwood; Dark Shadowy Secrets covers the film’s CG and practical effects; A Melee of Monstrous Proportions chronicles the film’s climactic battle; and Dark Shadows: The Legend Bites Back takes a look at the horror movie inspirations Burton used for his take on the material.
Rounding out the disc is an interesting set of deleted scenes, all of which add a bit of depth to each of the characters and strengthen some of the relationships in the film. When watching them, one can understand why they were cut (they would’ve bogged down the film’s already occasionally slow pace), but it’s a shame to see some of the better writing the film had wind up in the bin. Particularly great was a scene between Barnabas and young David Collins, which gives a bit more insight into the vampire and allows the audience to feel a bit more sympathetic to an occasionally unsympathetic character.
A commentary, perhaps with Burton and Depp, would have been much appreciated, as it would have been nice to hear the two talk at length about their love of the source material and their intentions with this film. And again, we have a major studio release that fails to include the film’s theatrical trailer. Whatever.
Ultimately, Dark Shadows is neither good enough to wholeheartedly recommend, nor bad enough to warn you away from it. If you’re a fan of the previous collaborations between Burton and Depp, the original “Dark Shadows”, or just vampire stories in general, you could do far worse than check out this beautifully made, shoddily scripted flick. As for me? Disappointed though I may have been in my hero, my faith in Burton hasn’t been shaken. I fully plan to see Frankenweenie before the week is out.
– Becoming Barnabas
– Welcome to Collinsport
– The Collinses: Every Family Has its Demons
– Reliving a Decade
– Angelique: A Witch Scorned
– Alice Cooper Rocks Collinwood!
– Dark Shadowy Secrets
– A Melee of Monstrous Proportions
– Dark Shadows: The Legend Bites Back
2 1/2 out of 5
3 out of 5