Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Cult Movie Review: Dark Shadows (2012)

The feature film remake of Dark Shadows has arrived in theaters and Tim Burton fans are faced with his least-satisfying genre comedy since Mars Attacks (1996).

While I don’t feel that Dark Shadows is a Planet of the Apes (2001)-sized creative debacle, it’s probably a close call.  This is one wildly uneven, incredibly incoherent movie.  Those who will feel most abused by Burton’s Dark Shadows re-imagination are likely the long-term fans of the afternoon soap opera, which ran on TV from 1966 – 1971.  

And that’s because this is a jokey and campy update of the serious Gothic material presented there.  The themes, tropes and situations of the much-cherished series have been spun to support an entirely Burton-esque fish-out-of-water comedy, but one lacking the heart and emotionality of Big Fish (2002) or Edward Scissorhands (1992).  Barnabas -- the great Byronic vampire who came before Anne Rice’s Lestat, Forever Knight’s Nick Knight, Joss Whedon’s Angel and Stephanie Meyers’ Edward Cullen – is now a confused misfit tilting at lava lamps and other fads of the 1970s.

And I’m afraid that’s the good news...

Dark Shadows recounts the tragic life of noble Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp).  Born in Liverpool, he traveled to America with his family in the late 18th century and watched as his father created a fishing and cannery empire.  Unfortunately, as he became a man, Collins caught the eye of a lustful family servant, Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green).  Barnabas rejected her romantic 
advances, and she cursed him for it. 

First, Angelique killed the love of his life, Josette (Bella Heathcote), and then she used black magic to turn Barnabas into a vampire.  Angelique then turned the ungrateful people of Collinsport against him, and Barnabas was buried in the woods…for eternity.

But in the year 1972, Barnabas is freed from captivity, and sets out to restore his family business and reputation, and find love in the person of young Victoria Winters (Heathcote).  The bad news is that Angelique is still nearby, and still carrying a torch for Barnabas…literally.

Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows works best – for a short while, anyway -- as a comedy of manners in which a 200-year old vampire struggles to understand life and etiquette in the year 1972.  He mistakes McDonalds for Mephistopheles, rock star Alice Cooper for the world’s “ugliest woman,” and judges sexy women by the size and shape of their “birthing” hips.  He doesn’t know about cars, roads, television, female doctors, psychiatry, or even Erich Segal’s Love Story (1970). 

While John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) plays at a local theater, Barnabas hopes to be delivered from his eternal curse of vampirism.  But what he really suffers from is permanent befuddlement at a world that has passed him by.

I can’t lie about this fact: some of this fish-out-of-water material is quite funny. The film’s jokes work more often than not, especially in Depp’s capable, deadpan hands.  One exceptionally funny bit involves Barnabas’s introduction to the Collins family at the breakfast table, wherein he comments on how, specifically, he knows the family silver utensils have been replaced.  Another funny – if decidedly low-brow – moment involves Barnabas’s description of “balls” (meaning a celebratory gathering, not testicles), and the ensuing double-entendres and innuendo on the topic.

Burton also does a tremendous amount of heavy lifting – probably a little too much -- with the abundant 1970s era soundtrack, which is utilized as biting contrast to Collins’s serious but antiquarian proclamations of purpose and nobility. 

Accordingly, before the movie is over, we are treated to Superfly, My First, My Last, My Everything by Barry White, and the Carpenters’ Top of the World. These songs work splendidly in context of the film’s fish-out-of-water humor, and so for a while Dark Shadows is actually pretty damn entertaining.  The first half-hour or forty-five minutes rollicks along with good humor, grace, and Burton’s trademark visual ingenuity.

Yet my sense of conflict and ambivalence about the film emerges from the inescapable fact that the sturdy premise is played entirely for laughs. In no sense is the subject matter respected or vetted in a faithful manner.  This Barnabas is not a tortured, tragic, Byronic figure, and his relations with the Collins family are mined for humor but not pathos or even intrigue.  The film’s sense of reality is thus paper thin and easily crumpled.

The upshot of this lampoon-style approach is that by Dark Shadow’s third act we’ve lost all sense of concern about this universe, and so don’t really care at all what becomes of the characters.  Spectacular special effects inform the film’s fiery finale -- with Angelique starting to crack and crumble like a porcelain doll -- but you can’t move yourself to care about who wins or who loses the conflict.

Long story short: Burton can’t ask us to laugh at Barnabas’s reality for most of the film, and then suddenly attempt to turn Dark Shadows into a serious and consequential battle between good and evil.  For one thing, the movie never quite squares the fact that Barnabas is indeed the protagonist, but that he wantonly murders innocent people too.  Thus the movie never decides what Barnabas should be as a character, except a non-stop joke-producing machine.  It reminds me of the 1998 Godzilla.   There, no effort was made to determine whether we should love the monster, consider him just an animal, or consider him an evil terror.   Similarly, in Dark Shadows we are never sure to how to categorize Barnabas.  He’s funny and likable, but he’s also weird and murderous.  We might want him to find love and happiness, but he should also be held accountable for his blood shed.

What can Dark Shadows fans hold onto here? 

Since this is a Burton film, many of the visuals dazzle.   That’s a claim you can’t really make of the original TV soap opera, which was constrained by low budgets and cardboard interior sets.  The prologue of Burton’s film is breath-taking in terms of landscape, camera movement and special effects.  I’ll go out on a limb and even state that the world of Dark Shadowsfrom the town of Collinsport to the Collinswood Estate – has never appeared in such epic or impressive terms.  The sweeping, majestic prologue, which is Gothic Extreme (literally, with a double cliff diving stunt…), is very impressive. 

By the same token, Burton’s Dark Shadows’ benefits from the fact that it knows the full “story” of Barnabas from beginning to end. The soap opera was often painfully slow, and moved along in fits and starts.  As I recall, Barnabas did not even appear until sometime early into the run.  And Angelique appeared even later than that.  This Dark Shadows gets to dramatize the whole epic, century-spanning story, and without daily soap opera distractions.  And yet – again – it does so entirely with tongue-in-cheek, and with little coherence or point.

Watching Dark Shadows I felt firmly that it was more a Burton fantasy than a legitimate adaptation of Dan Curtis’s beloved series.  Here, we get an allusion to Martin Landau’s Bela Lugosi (from Ed Wood) in Barnabas’s hypnosis-by-hand.  We also get the outsider attempting to build a family for himself while facing the scorn of the community (Edward Scissorhands).  We get the tragic back story of a child, like we saw in Sleepy Hollow (1999).  And like Beetlejuice, the supernatural world is portrayed here as half-crazed and half-frightening. 

But the script is hopelessly incoherent, with long periods of narrative inertia and dullness. Victoria Winters – the love of Barnabas’s life – disappears from the action for long stretches of the film with no explanation.  And the opening and closing narrations are trite, meaningless book-end bromides about “blood” being thicker than water.  Yet the ending quote shows no development and no knowledge learned since the opening quote.  Everything between these book ends is just episodic hemming and hawing.

Sure, Burton can forge lyrical, unforgettable imagery.  Here, that imagery includes the ghost of Josette clinging to a luminescent chandelier, or a death-defying plunge from the Sleepy Hollow-esque Widow’s Hill.  And I love the idea of the brittle Angelique cracking like a porcelain doll, hollowed out inside because of her centuries of consuming hatred.  In almost rapturous moments such as these, Burton summons meaningful visuals from the depths of his twisted imagination.  But there’s no compelling hook on which to hang them, and so they are interesting momentarily but without larger resonance in the body of the film.

If you’re a fan of Dark Shadows, I recommend you stay away from this remake and continue to enjoy the series for what it was.  And if you’re a devoted fan of Tim Burton, you may get a kick out of the film’s first half, if not much more

Just try to imagine Burton and Depp – to quote Elizabeth Collins (Michelle Pfeiffer) -- “on a better day.


  1. It is way past time, and I mean WAY PAST TIME, that Burton and Depp end their marriage and pursue projects with other people. Also Burton really needs to move beyond the color grey.

  2. David:

    The Depp/Burton collaboration needs a break, I agree. Also, and I hope you don't think I'm terrible to say this, it's long past time that Helena Bonham Carter sought employment outside of her husband's film. She absolutely feels shoe-horned into Dark Shadows.


  3. I'm afraid I never saw Dark Shadows and I can't say I have any interest in this one, but I couldn't agree more with David and yourself here John, enough already with Burton and Depp. Good grief. Carter too.

    I mean I know it's not uncommon to see actors and directors work together frequently, but even Depp's quirky Burton characters are slightly tired.

    But I don't want to take away from the film's strengths. I'm certainly not a fan of either so I may be a little unfair here.

    A terrific review as always John.


  4. SFF:

    You're absolutely right. There was very little difference between pasty faced Willy Wonka (in a film I adored...), pasty faced Mad Hatter (in another film I liked) and pasty faced Barnabas Collins here (in a bad film...).

    This shtick is getting stretched way too far...


  5. Loved Charlie too and I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. It's a quality film as you wrote about during your extensive Tim Burton coverage not too long ago.

    Burton is a strange beast, able to hit film's squarely on the mark [Charlie] or not [Planet Of The Apes].

    Additionally, regarding your point about the pasty faces, it's true, I mean Joker, Penquin, Edward, Ed, he loves pasty faced make-up.
    : )

  6. I certainly agree about Helena Bonham Carter. After The King's Speech, I figured she was on track for more non Burton films. Guess I was wrong.

  7. MauiAL5012:01 AM

    I found your blog a week ago and have thoroughly enjoyed reading through it, from the start. I am glad to read this review because, having scene the commercials and thinking thwe whole thhig looked rather silly, had decided not to pay to see Dark Shadows. I too remeber watching the original and having the bejeezuz scared out of me by Quentin and Barnabas. Once again, thank you for an excellent entertaining and informative blog.

  8. Okay, as the old man here, and the one who survived that specific decade in person, I guess I'll be the one writing the minority report commentary (being that I read this right after seeing the film this evening). Yes, there is definitely some unevenness in the movie, and a couple of angles in the narrative that seem to be at cross purposes. Yet, I found myself smiling throughout the film, with some actual guffaws in some scenes (and no, not the inadvertent variety, mind you). I love the 70s vibe that Burton achieved with this, and the little details and references he deftly scattered about. I mean, having Angelique driving a red Barracuda pony car, and accompanied to the old Percy Faith 'Theme from A Summer Place' instrumental from the previous decade, in 1972, hit on a particularly wicked nostalgic tone that wasn't lost on me. It's not a perfect film, Depp is beginning to gather that Jack Nicholson aura about him in some of his performances of late (that's not a compliment, btw), but I enjoyed him still in this role. Let's me frank (or Tom, Dick, or Harry), but the old soap opera Dark Shadows, as fun as some of us remember it, could be so very uneven. This, oddly (and the jury is out that it was consciously done), matched it. As well, all of the music selections in the soundtrack were just about perfect, at least for '72 and this listener. Still, I really wished they hadn't used a cover of the old Raspberries' song "Go All the Way" to close on -- especially when the use of "Nights in White Satin" by The Moody Blues for the movie credit sequence was so exemplarily deployed. While it's not among the cream of his filmography, I had a lot of fun with this, and in no way considered it in the same class his 'Planet of the Apes'. Just a thought. Thanks, John.

    1. Hi Le0pard13

      I'm thrilled that you wrote in to share your experience of the Dark Shadows movie, my friend. It's an important and valuable perspective.

      A lot of the film made me laugh, as I said in the review, but by the third act I just felt like nothing mattered, and the story had lost any kind of meaning or connection to humanity. But again, I laughed out loud at a lot of the jokes here. A lot of the material does connect on a humorous level.

      I loved the 1970s touches, from Love story to "Theme from a Summer Place," etc., and you're right to note them, as well. As a time capsule of 1972, it was a hoot. I loved the theater marquee showing Superfly and Deliverance...

      And I can't disagree with you that the old series was uneven, either. I feel like that for a new movie with the benefit of hindsight about the story, the material should have connected on a more meaningful level.

      Thank you for sharing the other side of Dark Shadows. You know I'm an extreme Tim Burton fan, so I'm very open to your perspective...


  9. Was hoping for a little comparison/contrast with the previous Dark Shadows movies. If I recall, you didn't think too highly of those either. So does this outting's "abuse" of the series' fans fall in line with it predecessors, or does it transcend in one direction or another?

    1. Hi Rian,

      Your question deserves a thoughtful and full response. I was not a big fan of the Dark Shadows movies in the 1970s (especially the second one), because they felt like reader's digest versions of the actual soap opera episodes. But, at least, they took the premise of the series -- vampire as drug addict -- seriously.

      The new movie certainly compares favorably in terms of production value, special effects and sense of humor, bu there's nothing serious or moving or meaningful at the heart of the remake. It's just...a joke. And yes, quite often that joke is funny.

      I find the movies almost impossible to compare, frankly. I wouldn't say that any one of them is better than 2 and a half stars. If someone said they wanted to understand Dark Shadows, I'd direct them to the first Barnabas collection of the soap opera, on DVD, or if they can get their hands on it, the short-lived 1991 remake, which I also liked.

      I hope that makes sense. But you are right to bring this up. Thank you.