May 12, 2012

Dark Shadows [12A]

Dir: Tim Burton
I walked into this film knowing nothing about the American TV show from which it was adapted, other than that it was a daily soap, and so ran for a truly ridiculous number of episodes, and that it involved some supernatural characters.

Perhaps this expansive amount of material to draw on is part of the problem with Seth Grahame-Smith's screenplay, and thus Tim Burton's latest film. The basic story goes like this: In 1776 Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp, I mean, obviously Johnny Depp, it's a Tim Burton film) spurns the affections of Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), given that Angelique is a witch, this is a poor idea. In revenge, she kills Barnabas' parents, hypnotises his fiancé (Bella Heathcote) into jumping off a cliff, turns Barnabas into a vampire, and then buries him in a steel coffin. In 1972, that coffin is dug up, and Barnabas returns to find his family's fortunes have nosedived and that Angelique is now the main businesswoman in town, and that she's still evil, and obsessed with him. Around this there are a mass of side stories, most of which die on the vine, in a film that manages to feel both overlong and very heavily edited.

There are definitely other issues, but the script really does feel broken-backed, and sometimes unsure of its tone. Is it going for the horror inherent in Angelique's curse on the Collins family? Is it going for fish out of water comedy with Barnabas? Is it going for drama and intrigue among the Collins family? It tries all of them, with wildly varying degrees of success from scene to scene, which negates any real attempt at an overarching narrative, and robs things that we should be invested in of much importance or interest. Many characters go under-developed, for instance the Collins children; Chloe Moretz is reduced to playing a collection of sullen teenage clichés as Carolyn, giving a performance that suggests bored irritation (to be fair that may because she was bored and irritated or it may be a character choice, it's tough to tell, or to care much), and while the film talks endlessly about David's (Gulliver McGrath) psychological issues the scenes actually dealing with them must currently be on Tim Burton's cutting room floor. Sub-Plots about the family business, a secret stash of wealth (ripped, to a large degree, from the first Addams Family film) and Roger Collins' (Johnny Lee Miller) shortcomings as a Father are all short-changed as well.

Most problematic among the underdeveloped threads are two that involve Barnabas, first a tentative alliance with matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), which promises interesting conflicts it never delivers, and second and more problematic still the romantic storyline with Bella Heathcote, who plays both Barnabas' fiancé Josette and the Collins family's new nanny Victoria. This romantic storyline should be what drives Barnabas throughout the film, given that Josette is one of the main reasons he becomes a vampire, but Victoria disappears for huge swathes of the film and the beautiful but blank Heathcote has little chemistry with Depp.

The tone is sometimes baffling, as it veers from soap opera to parody, unsure which to go for. The parody sometimes works quite well, even if you can feel Burton repeating himself (an early joke about ghost feels like a lame Beetlejuice homage, which bodes well for the sequel that Seth Grahame-Smith is currently penning), Depp sometimes gets the tone right, especially in the first half, as Barnabas explores the world of 1972, the fish out of water jokes are hardly new, but there is a certain joy in Depp tearing the back of a TV off and shouting 'Reveal yourself, tiny songstress' as Karen Carpenter sings. The one person who really gets the tone - more so, frankly, than her director - is Eva Green. Whenever she's on screen Dark Shadows improves by approximately 76%, because she, more than anyone else, is having an absolute ball. Green hams it up fantastically, taking equal joy in Angelique's attempts to seduce and to destroy Barnabas. That old phrase - deliciously evil - that was made for this performance. There's a small issue created by just how much fun Green is: the whole film is really about how Barnabas wants to escape this woman who wants to seduce him and make him hers forever. Oh no, what a horrible fate, to be trapped forever with an eternally youthful Eva Green, I do hope he manages to avoid that.

Ultimately, even if you leave aside the storytelling and the messed up tone, there's a problem at the heart of this film, and it seems to be creative fatigue. This is Burton's fifth film in seven years, and every one of those films stars Johnny Depp. The two are very much into cookie cutter kooky mode, and seem to have become each other's yes men. Twenty years ago, Burton pulled Depp out of his teen idol persona with the gift of the lead role in Edward Scissorhands, today it feels like his direction extends to 'weirder, Johnny'. Once again, Depp dons pale make up to play an English accented freak, and it's wearing very, very thin at this point. Even when the jokes hit, even when everything else is working, Depp is always visible, 'oh look' you think 'it's Johnny Depp being odd', never once does the actor disappear and leave the character on screen, something Depp used to be remarkably good at.

This feeling of Burton being on autopilot is hardly mitigated by the fact that much of Dark Shadows feels very reminiscent of other films (his own and others, with particular accent on Beetlejuice, The Addams Family and Death Becomes Her) and that once again he's wheeling out his regulars; Danny Elfman, Helena Bonham Carter, Christopher Lee. It's almost Tim Burton's paint by numbers.

All this said, there are moments that work, moments where this clunky thing stutters to life. Eva Green is fun throughout, and when Burton accents the comedy he hits more than he misses, with Barnanbas' flowery and old-fashioned language and lack of comprehension of the 'modern' world, often good for a laugh. One especially good joke involves a McDonalds sign. The film also looks great, with Rick Heinrichs doing some wonderfully detailed set design, and a nicely retro feel to the visuals provided by DP Bruno Delbonnel and Burton blends practical and CG effects to fine effect (Eva Green's look in the last scene is probably a little of both, and it's beautifully done).

Ultimately Dark Shadows is just far too inconsistent and unsure of itself to really be recommendable, but the bits that work mean that it's not all that easy to completely write off, and it's probably worth seeing just for Eva Green. It's also, sadly, the Burton film I've got most out of since Big Fish. Perhaps what is needed is a sequel that learns the lessons of this film.

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