Saturday, 19 May 2012

Dark Shadows aka Depp Gets to be Weird Again

Trailer for Dark Shadows (2012)

Trailer for House of Dark Shadows (1970)

Dark Shadows is director Tim Burton and star Johnny Depp’s latest film collaboration. And while it’s not their best (Ed Wood) it certainly isn’t their worst (Alice in Wonderland anybody? No? Okay.)

Based on a US supernatural daytime soap from the 60’s, Dark Shadows follows Barnabas Collins, a cursed vampire imprisoned in a coffin for two hundred years, who is accidentally freed in the year 1972. Finally freed from his centuries old prison, Barnabas sets about helping his descendants in the small New England fishing town of Collinsport rebuild the once great Collins family name and business empire. Unfortunately for Barnabas the witch who cursed him back in the 1770’s is still around in the delectable form of Eva Green and is currently running the town through her own business empire, much of it poached from what the now faded Collins’ family once had. Cue goofy fish out of water fun as Barnabas negotiates his way around 1972 and its many strange social and technical advances while also scheming and plotting to get the family business back on top. Not to mention getting his revenge on nasty/sexy Eva Green. Amidst all these shenanigans the old world vamp also manages to fall for the Collins’ new governess Victoria Winters who bears an uncanny resemblance to the woman he loved long ago and who killed herself while under evil witch Eva’s spell.

If this all sounds like some bad soap opera, well, um, that’s cuz it is.

Now I’ve not seen the original Dark Shadows but I have seen the early 90’s revival and one of the two 70’s movies adapted from the show. And Burton and Depp’s movie sticks pretty close to the main storylines of both: the fading dysfunctional family, Barnabas falling for Victoria, Dr Hoffman’s devious actions, the nasty witch. All present and correct.

But does this new version work as a movie? Yes and no.

I enjoyed Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows. A fair bit. I enjoy Burton’s obvious affection for gothic melodrama. I can relate. I was brought up watching old Hammer horror films - a clear influence on Tim B, especially in Sleepy Hollow, The Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd and now Dark Shadows (and why Christopher Lee cameos in most of ‘em). I enjoy the aesthetic. Also I’m pretty sure that if the original Dark Shadows had been on TV over here in the UK when I was a kid, then I, like Burton and Depp, would have been hooked too. But a movie is not a TV soap opera. Burton’s movie, like a TV soap opera, has many plot lines and subplots, all lifted from the series. Unlike a TV show, though, a movie is constrained by certain narrative needs and a running time. That’s not to say that multiple plot lines, character arcs etc. can’t be done well in a movie. They can. Look what Joss has just achieved with The Avengers: multiple story strands, character arcs, set ups and payoffs all perfectly balanced and effortlessly successful. Not a minute of screen time is wasted. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows. Here various story elements feel short changed, rather pointless, lacking in weight.

Oddly, storywise Dan Curtis’ 1970 film House of Dark Shadows did a better job of it. Curtis’ film cut loose all the business stuff and witch revenge seen in Burton’s take. Instead it focussed on Barnabas’ escape from his two hundred year imprisonment, ingratiating himself in to the family by posing as a distant cousin from England while slowly sucking his way through the locals and trying to woo the family’s governess who reminds him of his long lost love. In Curtis’ film Barnabas is a tragic, reluctant monster. But a monster nonetheless who wilfully kills out of need, lust and anger, stopping at nothing to get the woman he thinks he loves. Original actor Jonathan Frid imbued his Barnabas with a cold, ruthless charm and noble theatrical viciousness. Quite effectively. In the new movie, Depp’s Barnabas is a funny, weird oddball who even though he does kill never really comes across as a dangerous monster. He isn’t selfish or cruel, which, from what I saw, Frid’s version most certainly was. Curtis’ 1970 film is far from perfect. It is cheesy (especially to our modern jaded eyes) and relentlessly old fashioned. But it does have atmosphere, a couple of ok scares, some cool Dick Smith make-up, and Frid being coldly creepy in the lead. It also has a more focussed narrative than Burton’s all-over-the-place remake.

In the end, Burton’s film might not hang together too well, but at least I was never bored and laughed a fair bit while loving the gorgeous photography and art direction. The entire cast were great too, especially oddball Depp, sexy Eva and the wonderfully sneering teen angst of Chloe Moretz. I also dug the overall 70's vibe (loved the opening credits to the Moody Blues while tracking Victoria's journey to Collinsport). And any film with Alice Cooper singing No More Mr Nice Guy scores at least some points in my book. But it is Depp who holds it all together. He might not have the cold menace of Frid but his Barnabas is a nicely oddball/weird/silly reluctant fish-out-of-water who's trying to do the right thing despite having to kill the odd hippie or ten.

Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows ain't perfect and is perhaps a little too slavish to its soap opera origins to make for a strong film in its own right, but I had a pretty good time with it. On the Burton scale it's perhaps one notch down from Sleepy Hollow, which to my mind is a movie that gets the weird/silly/creepy Burtonesque balance just about right. 3.5 (out of 5)

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