Friday, May 11, 2012

In Theaters: DARK SHADOWS (2012)

(US, 2012)

Directed by Tim Burton.  Written by Seth Grahame-Smith.  Cast: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Jackie Earle Haley, Jonny Lee Miller, Chloe Grace Moretz, Bella Heathcote, Gully McGrath, Christopher Lee, Alice Cooper, Ivan Kaye, Shane Rimmer.  (PG-13, 113 mins).

A big-screen revamp of the legendary 1966-1971 afternoon soap opera has been a longtime pet project of producer/star Johnny Depp, but the end result is a real mixed bag.  Depp and director Tim Burton team for the eighth time since 1990, and DARK SHADOWS is easily their least-satisfying collaboration (of which I'd probably rank 1994's ED WOOD as my favorite) thus far, not helped by a script by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter author Seth Grahame-Smith that can't seem to settle on what exactly it wishes to accomplish and, comedy aside, takes great liberties with the Dan Curtis soap, especially in the construction and origin of some of the major characters.

In the 1770s, Barnabas Collins (Depp), dashing scion of the Maine-based Collins family, founders of the fishing town of Collinsport, professes his love for Josette du Pres (Bella Heathcote), breaking the heart of servant girl Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green).  Angelique turns out to be a witch who puts a curse on the Collins family and Collinwood, their 200-room mansion.  Collins' parents are killed, Josette leaps from a cliff, and Barnabas is turned into a vampire and buried alive by the vengeful Angelique.

Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands as Willy Wonka
as Sweeney Todd as The Mad Hatter as
Barnabas Collins in DARK SHADOWS
Cut to 1972, and the Collins dynasty has fallen on hard times.  Their fish cannery is long shuttered, the money is almost gone, and Collinwood is in dusty shambles.  It houses current matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her sullen teenage daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), along with Elizabeth's brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), his troubled son David (Gully McGrath), David's boozy shrink Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), and caretaker Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley).  Into this dysfunctional family comes Maggie Evans, who calls herself Victoria Winters (Heathcote again), recently hired as young David's governess (Maggie Evans and Victoria Winters were two different characters on the TV show, but here Maggie invents the assumed name to hide from a tragic past).  Around this time, construction workers accidentally unearth Barnabas, who returns to Collinwood and has a hard time dealing with life in 1972.  Barnabas' reappearance gets the attention of the head of the Bouchard family's rival--and now reigning--canning factory (Green again), who's actually the still-living witch Angelique, who keeps passing herself off as her own descendants with each new generation.  She still wants Barnabas, who finds himself drawn to Victoria, as she bears an uncanny resemblence to his long-dead love Josette.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard
There's an awful lot of plot in DARK SHADOWS, so much so that it feels like a season-long reboot whittled down to two hours.  But it still doesn't get much accomplished.  After the magnificently gothic 18th century prologue, Burton seems to lose interest.  Instead, the bulk of the film focuses on stale period humor and Barnabas being a fish out of water.  Whether he's mistaking the golden arches of the McDonald's sign as a symbol of Mephistopheles, watching Karen Carpenter on television and ripping off the back of the TV set demanding "reveal yourself, tiny songstress!", mistaking a lava lamp for "an urn of blood," or sitting around a campfire with some stoned hippies, it's just one tired joke after another, almost all of them landing with a thud.  And even the period detail is lazy.  A wacky montage set to the Carpenters' "Top of the World"?  And can we just outlaw the use of Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" as a cinematic signifier of the early 1970s?  And all the other usual suspects can be heard:  Deep Purple's "Highway Star," T. Rex's "Bang a Gong (Get it On)," and the Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin."  All great songs, yes, but we've heard them in enough movies.  At one point, Barnabas is trying to convey his feelings and says "I'm a picker, I'm a grinner, I'm a lover, and I'm a sinner."  Again, thud.  Nevermind that Steve Miller's "The Joker" didn't come out until 1973.

Bella Heathcote as Victoria Winters
DARK SHADOWS struggles to find an identity.  It works best when it's played relatively straight.  The opening 15 minutes or so are very promising, but then it takes a dip and just flatlines, with too much time spent on Barnabas' clueless, clownish inability to handle 1972 and too much time spent on the cutthroat fish cannery rivalry.  Who cares?  It picks up a bit for the climax which, again, is played fairly straight, even if it's just a tired parade of visual effects.  Depp is a great actor but he's a major part of the problem.  For him, Barnabas Collins is another chance to apply some white makeup and put on a funny wig and use a wildly eccentric accent.  Between his repetitive performances in recent years--both for Burton and in the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN films--and his adopting of a bizarre Hunter S. Thompson affect offscreen, it's entirely possible that the real Johnny Depp has ceased to exist.  There's a similar feeling of frustation with Burton, who seems to have lost the goodwill of at least some of his base over the last few years (though it probably started back with his PLANET OF THE APES remake in 2001), at least judging from the harsh reaction to 2010's ALICE IN WONDERLAND (which I actually liked).  When the DARK SHADOWS trailer first appeared a few months ago, emphasizing the spoofy comedic "He's stuck in 1972!!" wackiness, fan reaction was positively toxic.  DARK SHADOWS wants to emulate the campy elements of the TV show, but too often succumbs to hip and/or snarky references.  That's not the same thing, and the Tim Burton of 20 years ago would've known the difference. 

Eva Green as the evil Angelique Brouchard
DARK SHADOWS isn't as bad as the trailer would've indicated, but it's still not very good.  With too much ground to cover in two hours, many story elements are thrown in and out at random and glossed over with a one-line explanation, then forgotten (oh, this character's suddenly a werewolf?  Uh, OK), and a lot of the cast members get lost in the shuffle.  We don't see nearly enough of Michelle Pfeiffer these days, so she's always a welcome presence, but she doesn't get a whole lot to do other than observe the other actors.  The same goes for Carter (resurrecting her smoke-ravaged Marla Singer croak from FIGHT CLUB), Haley, Miller, and Moretz.  Green easily comes off the best, vamping and strutting across the screen and the only one who seems to be sticking to the daytime soap acting style.  While the other actors are shortchanged and Depp is lost in his own playland, Green plays the spurned, bitchy witch to the hilt and is a delight to watch.  Alice Cooper also appears as himself (and Barnabas doesn't understand that he's not a woman!  Hyuk!), and Christopher Lee has an amusing bit as a crusty old sea salt who falls under Barnabas' spell after telling him to "take a long walk off a short pier," a line spat out in a way that only Christopher Lee could do.  DARK SHADOWS probably isn't as bad as I've made it sound, but it's just lazy and forgettable. Its biggest crime is its complacency.  Perhaps Burton and Depp need some time apart to see other people, or at the very least, Depp needs to give the costume and makeup people a break and find a project that will once again inspire and challenge him as an actor.

And I doubt playing Tonto in THE LONE RANGER is that project.


  1. Still gonna see it on dvd. I totally agree with you about Johnny Depp needing to cut out the makeup & same character, different movie. I love Donnie Brasco Depp.

  2. Depp in the '90s was great. GILBERT GRAPE, ED WOOD, DONNIE BRASCO, SLEEPY HOLLOW. He did a lot of off-the-wall, smaller movies like ARIZONA DREAM and DEAD MAN and weird things like THE NINTH GATE. I remember movie snobs crying that he was "selling out" when he did NICK OF TIME in 1995 (you know, the one where Christopher Walken forces him to assassinate a politician because no one will recognize him and Walken won't be connected, then spends the rest of the movie busting his balls from about two feet away?).

    It can't be a coincidence that he seemed to care a bit less right around the time he started making PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN money. Even when he's playing a regular character, he doesn't seem to care. Did you see THE TOURIST? He looked half-asleep through the whole thing.

  3. Sounds like I enjoyed this a bit more, but when the credits rolled, I was still left thinking "That was a lot of money and design expertise expended on not all that much."