I love Tim Burton. That won’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me. I have a rather large Jack Skellington tattoo adorning my right forearm. I love almost all of his films and will defend them (most of them) vociferously. However, I am writing this as a critic, NOT as the die-hard Burton-ite that I am, and, man, I have to be honest…
Lately, defending his films is getting more and more difficult. My defence is growing weaker and weaker and his latest effort, Dark Shadows, does nothing to buck the recent trend for mediocrity to be found in Burton’s work.
Based upon the classic gothic US TV soap opera of the same name, Dark Shadows is not a name that will be easily recognisable to many here in the UK. In fact, most readers here will be largely unfamiliar with the original series or the numerous spin offs it has enjoyed over the years, which is fine, (though I am sure that will change with the release of the movie).
I think it’s important to say that as a fan of the original series, and knowing that both Burton and Johnny Depp are also fans, I think my favourite director has missed the mark here once again.
Dark Shadows is the story of Barnabas Collins. Having moved to Maine from Liverpool as a child with his family, young Barnabas watched as his father, a fishing magnate, built the coastal town of Collinsport from the ground up and with it, the palatial Collinwood Manor. As Barnabas grew, so too did the Collins name.
Barnabas, (perhaps unsurprisingly given that he is Johnny Depp), is something of a ladies man and finds himself involved in a tryst with young housemaid, Angelique. Bona fide playa that he is, Mack Daddy Barney refuses to tell Angelique that he loves her and she does not take that rebuttal at all well.
She kills Barnabas’ parents with some falling masonry and leads his one true love, Josette, to leap from a cliff to her death. Barnabas attempts to take his own life by falling after her but does not die when his body crashes upon the rocks below. Turns out Angelique has cursed Barnabas Collins to a life without life. He is a vampire and soon finds himself, in Universal Monster style, hounded by angry residents of Collinsport and buried in a steel casket.
Which is where he lies for 200 years until he emerges in 1972 to find his world changed, his family and empire in ruins and Angelique still very much alive and still very bitter…
So yeah. Dark Shadows 2012 is very much a case of style over substance.
The cast are, for the most part, excellent, truth be told. Long time Burton collaborator Johnny Depp is, as you would expect, doing the wide-eyed, confused English thing to great effect. Michelle Pfeiffer is great at the Collins matriarch, Elizabeth.
Similarly excellent are Bella Heathcote as teacher (and Barnabas’ love interest), Victoria, and young Gulliver McGrath as David Collins.
Mrs. Burton herself, Helena Bonham Carter seems a bit lost in her role and I wonder exactly how much of her part was left on the cutting room floor. Johnny Lee Miller also seems a little lost at times and his character is, frankly, pointless and, for the first time, I found myself getting annoyed, actually annoyed, at Chloe Grace Moretz. I kept thinking, “Stop squinting! Open your eyes fully!”.
For my money, the best performance comes courtesy of the magnificent Eva Green. Much more than simply being absolutely dynamite on the eye, she is wonderfully wicked as Angelique, if at times a little over the top.
Visually, the film is incredible. It is everything you might want from a Tim Burton film. Washed out greys and blacks, interspersed with flashes of colour. I can say, without hyperbole, that this is one of the most perfectly presented Tim Burton productions since Sleepy Hollow. Everything on display looks fantastic and, of course, Danny Elfman’s score is great as is the soundtrack.
However. All is not rosy with Dark Shadows. Not by a long shot.
It’s biggest stumbling block comes from the weak, silly script. Pride & Prejudice & Zombies scribe Seth Grahame-Smith (who is also the man tasked with penning the Beetlejuice sequel) has tried to infuse the script with a great deal of comedy. Sadly, most of it focuses on Barnabas being a vamp-out-of-time, adapting to the new world and much of it misses the mark, reducing the whole thing at times to a goofy mess. Case in point, the cheap Alice Cooper cameo?
No need for it.
It also lacks real direction. The characters are never fully realised. I would have liked the opportunity to fully explore these characters, particularly those of Bonham Carter’s and Moretz’s. Also, the love story between Heathcote and Depp is insanely sloppy and rushed.
With Dark Shadows, Burton had a chance to make a film for the fans, true to the original that he purports to love, but chose instead to make a dumb, bombastic, comedy horror that skimps on both. He has once again chosen the safe option and delivered a film that isn’t terrible but also, isn’t that great. It sits somewhere in between, like so many of his recent films. It simply exists.
Why a director as immensely talented as Burton would be content to simply exist in the middle ground is beyond me. Dark Shadows is yet another beautifully crafted exercise in mediocrity from a man who, as we all know, can do so much better. A real missed opportunity.
Oh! It’s also worth mentioning that it’s a 12A but features some implied fellatio and pantie sniffing. Tread carefully, kids.
Dark Shadows is on general release NOW.