Film Review: “Dark Shadows”

by Jason LeRoy on May 11, 2012

Johnny Depp and Eva Green in DARK SHADOWS

starring: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Jackie Earle Haley, Jonny Lee Miller, Chloe Grace Moretz, Bella Heathcote

written by: Seth Grahame-Smith

directed by: Tim Burton

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking

Audiences have understandably grown a bit fatigued of the collaborations between Tim Burton and his frequent accomplice, Johnny Depp. In the last fifteen years, Burton has directed nine feature films; of those nine, only one (Big Fish) was a live-action film that was neither a sequel nor a remake. (And perhaps not coincidentally, it did not star Depp.) So when it was announced that Burton and Depp had once again rummaged through their foreboding trunk of shared references while Danny Elfman maniacally sawed at a cello in the background and settled on Dark Shadows, the oddball gothic 1966-71 daytime soap opera, eyes rolled and hackles were raised. But Burton has crafted a surprisingly fun, mostly enjoyable yarn from this cherished cult source material.

The film opens with perhaps its weakest yet most visually extravagant element, a prologue explaining the origin of Barnabas Collins (Depp). As a child, Barnabas and his wealthy family moved from England to Maine in the mid-18th century, where they founded a town called Collinsport and built a sprawling mansion called Collinwood. But when Barnabas grew up to be the master of Collinwood and foolishly spurned Angelique (Eva Green), a comely servant who also happened to be a vengeful witch, she cursed him by turning him into a vampire. Not content to have made him a bloodthirsty undead monster, she also alerted the local townspeople, who chained Barnabas inside of a casket and buried him deep in the ground. This section of the film feels a bit rushed and choppy; it also appears that Spinning Platters interviewee Thomas McDonnell, who was cast as young Barnabas, was either cut from the film or had his scenes re-shot with Depp in his role. Either way, it’s a sad day for McDonnell.

We fast forward to 1972, wherein we see a lovely young woman named Victoria (Bella Heathcote, who looks and sounds like Mischa Barton before she became a shambles) as she seeks out a governess position at Collinwood, which has become increasingly Grey Gardens-esque as time has passed. The Barnabas-descended denizens of the home now include Elizabeth Collins (Michelle Pfeiffer), her pouty, rebellious teen daughter, Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), Elizabeth’s brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller, to whom age has not been kind), and his stunted son, David (Gulliver McGrath), as well as Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), a therapist who was brought in to assist with David nearly two years ago and hasn’t left, and Willie (Jackie Earle Haley), a dazed housekeeper.

At this point you expect Victoria to become the film’s protagonist, but when a construction crew unwittingly awakens Barnabas, she essentially vanishes as the film suddenly transforms into a culture-shock comedy about an 18th-century vampire adjusting to life in the 1970s. While the fan-troubling trailers highlighted this interlude as though it were the film’s plot, it is really just a few minutes of amusing gags performed impeccably by Depp. Once this is out of the way, we get down to the business of the film’s actual plot: Barnabas attempting to restore his lapsed family to their former standing in the community, reunite with his lost love Josette (also Heathcote), and avenge himself against Angelique, still alive and un-aged, who has usurped the Collins family to become the most powerful and influential person in Collinsport.

While Burton has unsurprisingly created a role for Depp that suits him perfectly and plays to his every comedic strength, the film is handily stolen by Eva Green’s absolutely delectable performance as Angelique. With a ferocious growl and an intensely weird energy, her combustible combination of sultry and scary makes this an instant-classic Burton villainess. Meanwhile, former Burton villainess Pfeiffer is stranded with a largely thankless role that hardly constitutes the kick-ass reunion for which we were all hoping. Chloe Grace Moretz appears to have been directed to read all of her lines sneering and staring intensely up from a lowered face, but she remains the most fascinating young actress of her generation. Bonham Carter is of course as much a natural fit in Burton’s films as Depp, and the quirky character of Dr. Julia is yet another endearingly disturbed love letter from husband to wife.

Dark Shadows reminded me more of Addams Family Values than anything else; from the quirky black-clad family in the dilapidated gothic mansion to the scheming blonde villainess who takes on the entire family in the climax, the comparisons are numerous. But fortunately I love Addams Family Values, so I intend this as a compliment. (There is also a quick visual callback to Beetlejuice that will thrill Burton fans.) Dark Shadows lacks a strong focus, not only in whose story is being told, but in what kind of story it is. Horror? Comedy? Romance? Soap opera? Class struggle allegory? A satire of weird New England fishing dynasties? Perhaps this confusion is part of the homage to the original series, which bizarrely incorporated the supernatural and monsters into a daytime soap opera. Burton certainly has fun playing with daytime soap blocking and occasionally exaggerated acting. But while it may be yet another Burton/Depp remake, Dark Shadows is one of their most satisfying efforts in years.

Dark Shadows opens nationwide today.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Holly May 20, 2012 at 11:12 am

I was looking forward to this film, but I’m annoyed now (being from Maine) that they claim this story to have started in 1750 “Maine”. Maine was originally part of Massachusetts and didn’t become a state until 1820.

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