Friday, 18 May 2012

'Dark Shadows' review:

It's not big and it's not clever to reject the latest film from Tim Burton out of hand. Though it's fair to say that he hasn't done anything good in a while (and nothing truly great since the mid-90s) the man who brought us 'Edward Scissorhands' and 'Beetlejuice' always deserves a fair crack of the whip - even when the trailer for his most recent feature looks beyond dire. This was the case with promos for long-gestating passion project 'Dark Shadows': a broad comedy with Gothic horror trappings, loosely based on a cult late-60s soap opera series of the same name, that reunites the director with an increasingly irksome Johnny Depp. And though the film is slightly better than trailers suggest, it's still a baggy, barely cohesive mess of style over substance - a joint vanity project for a distinctive visual artist and his showboating leading man.

Where Depp was once the most exciting and unpredictable actor of his generation he is now, post his Jack Sparrow rise to pop culture ubiquity, restricting himself to the immensely lucrative "lovable oddball" side of the market. His Willy Wonka and Mad Hatter - themselves in two of Burton's most risible movies - are Halloween costumes more than characters. They are funny voices and affectations in brightly coloured hats around which Depp can construct another peculiar, pantomine creation. This time Depp inhabits the gloomy make-up and wardrobe of Barnabas Collins: an eighteenth century fishing magnate-turned-vampire who is dug up after nearly two centuries underground to discover the multi-coloured, drug-infused wackiness of the 1970s. Fish out of water hilarity ensues, ticking every box you might expect given the setting, with Barnabas encountering lava lamps, Alice Cooper and college stoners. Just what will he make of it all?!

Perhaps this is why the Depp/Burton partnership was proven so long-lasting: both men now seem unable to go below the surface of whatever weird character or world they are presenting on screen. If Depp is increasingly drawn to playing broad, wacky cartoon creations in over-designed costumes, then Burton is rapidly jettisoning what little interest he ever had in story in favour of elaborate set design and showy visual flourishes. As Barnabas first re-enters his stately mansion house after his lengthy absence, he immediately begins to describe in detail the pillars, the chandeliers, and the Florentine marble fireplace. It's as if he's breaking the fourth well to compliment the film for its art direction and set design. Which he may as well do because that is all this film is.

One genuine bright spot is a scene-stealing performance from Eva Green as the villain - the witch who turned Barnabas into a vampire for rejecting her advances and who now dominates the fishing industry of his small town (that's the story by the way). Otherwise it's populated by decent actors in thankless parts, with key characters going unaccounted for during the entire second act (Michelle Pfeifffer's matriarch and supposed central love interest Bella Heathcote) and the young Chloe Moretz overtly sexualised to no real end. Johnny Lee Miller plays an absent father to similarly little payoff, whilst Helena Bonham Carter continues her unbroken 7-film Burton streak as a live-in therapist whose every scene could be excised from the plot in a way which would only impact on the bloated running time. There are perhaps a half-dozen different versions of this film on a hard drive in an edit suite somewhere and perhaps one of them makes for a coherent movie.

I didn't hate or even strongly dislike 'Dark Shadows' (slap that on the DVD cover) and, if I've given that impression, it's only because - despite the low quality of his last decade's worth of work - Tim Burton still apparently has the capacity to disappoint. But this is certainly no worse than 'Planet of the Apes', 'Alice in Wonderland' or 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'. It probably belongs in the next category up, alongside the instantly forgettable 'Corpse Bride' - more "Burtonesque" than Burton. Like that drab animation, 'Dark Shadows' feels less like the genuine article and more like the work of an art school student excessively influenced by the most showy aspects of his visual style.

However, there are a few nice visual touches and neat ideas, most of which benefit from the clear affection the film has for traditional vampiric tropes, as it refreshingly eschews all revisionism of monster lore prevalent since the hip and post-modern 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'. It must also be said that among the obvious gags about disco balls, automobiles and television sets, there are also a few very funny moments involving the time-displaced bloodsucker - such as when he first encounters tarmac.

'Dark Shadows' is out now and rated '12A' by the BBFC.


  1. This film starts off extremely strong, only to quickly descend into mediocrity. Depp’s wild performance is the real saving factor here. I think Burton and Depp need to take a vacation from each other for a while. Good review Robert.

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