Synopsis: From the wonderfully warped imagination of Tim Burton comes the story of Barnabas Collins, a dashing aristocrat who is turned into a vampire by a jilted lover and entombed for two centuries. Emerging from his coffin into the world of 1972, he returns to his once-majestic home, only to find the few dysfunctional descendants of the Collins family who remain. Determined to return his family name to its former glory, Barnabas is thwarted at every turn by his former lover – the seductive witch Angelique (Eva Green).
eyelights: the ensemble cast. the gorgeous production. the stylish look of the film.
eyesores: the all-too-familiar soundtrack. the pathetic attempts at humour.
“I am a vampire, madam. But I am also a Collins, and I swear by all I hold sacred I will not harm anyone under this roof.”
Sigh… another Tim Burton film, another stylistically impressive but entirely vacuous effort. I wish I understood his creative process more. When he first arrived on the scene, his style was fresh, new, he had ideas, he had a vision. These days, one gets the impression that he’s run out a long time ago and that he’s just coasting, being handed down material that he adds his own touch to but that he’s not really that involved with emotionally or creatively.
It’s a damned shame, because no one but Burton could have made films like ‘Pee Wee’s Big Adventure’, ‘Beetlejuice‘ and ‘Edward Scissorhands‘. Like ’em or hate ’em, they were originals and were imbued with a vitality that comes with youthful vigor and spark. It still seems to show up from time to time, but I generally regard Burton as spent, perhaps overworked. He should take a break, refuel and come back primed.
‘Dark Shadows’ is a film interpretation of a TV soap opera that ran for six seasons for a total of well over 1200 episodes. It gathered a cult following that has endured through the years. The film version, which was written by Seth Grahame-Smith, tried to condense the essence of the show, which was incredibly convoluted and unintentionally funny, into a two-hour film with one major storyline to pull it together.
Apparently, from what I’ve read, he didn’t keep to the details of the show, sometimes swapping elements and playing loose with the characters. However, he did study the material well enough that it is said that he got the whole timeline correct: from the prologue taking place in 1760 and setting the stage all the way to 1972, when the film takes place. I wouldn’t know, having only seen a handful of the original episodes.
Quite frankly, I had never really intended to see ‘Dark Shadows’. All the press material I was exposed to gave me absolutely no incentive: the picture looked generic, as did the characters (aside from Depp’s Barnabas, which appeared too made-up, cartoonish), and I had lost much respect for Tim Burton by then. The last thing I needed was yet another reheated product – especially one that wasn’t great to start with.
Even after I got the chance to see a few of the original episodes, I can’t say that I craved for more. I picked up the 1990s revamp (!), but only managed to get through one episode, and never considered the film version. Not until I stumbled upon it at the library, I must admit. Then I decided that, for the cost a mere two hours of my time, I could perhaps be bothered. Given that my gf was interested was motivation enough.
Alas, ‘Dark Shadows’ is yet again one of those fish-out-water stories, depending on its culture-shock elements for laughs. This is certainly not new to Burton’s oeuvre (ex: ‘Edward Scissorhands’, ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas‘), so it felt déjà vu to me. Also, it just didn’t work very well in this iteration, with Barnabas trying to cope with being released into the world of 1972 after 200 years of internment.
The thing is that the humour wasn’t especially funny to start with: the lines are amusing at best, and sometimes that’s being generous (“…ugliest woman I’ve ever seen.”), but are merely variations on one-liners or routines that are old as time itself or should be beneath the people involved. Case-in-point:
Barnabas Collins: “The Collins have always held the biggest and most expensive balls.”
Roger Collins: “That’s what I’ve been saying, this family needs more balls!”
Don’t get me wrong: I love good-nature juvenile humour, especially the raunchy stuff, but this is so trite it’s beyond words. It wasn’t funny when AC/DC made a song of it, it’s not funny now. Especially when one is talking about an aristocratic family like the Collins. It just doesn’t work, especially since it makes them look like morons.
Similarly, some of the humour is of a low-grade genre that has been reused for a century. Case-in-point, the moment that Barnabas avoids being vomited upon, shouting triumphantly, “Missed me!”. Well, what do you suppose happened next…? You guessed it. We’ve all seen this one a gazillion times before. Or how about when Barnabas is on fire, but no one tells him until 30 seconds later. And he doesn’t even notice?
Part of the problem is that none of the cast seem especially good at delivering the laughs. Even Johnny Depp, who demonstrated an affinity for physical comedy in ‘Benny and Joon’ and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, seems to be off beat here. Granted, few of the cast are comedians, per se, but I suspect that the issue is that director Burton is not exactly known for his comedy. Quirks, yes. But side-splitting comedy? Not really.
To make matters worse, many of the gags rested on pop culture elements of the ’70s. Firstly, one needs to be aware of the ’70s to find these things amusing. Secondly, they actually need to BE amusing for it to work. Looking at McDonald’s golden arches and having Barnabas assume that it means Mephistopheles – when the chain’s name is written quite visibly right underneath, is moronic at best. Really? He can’t read and he’s an idiot?
Frankly, it was so unfunny and illogical that these “gags” reeked of product placement, something that seemed way out of character for the TV show, the film and even just the setting. If anything, putting a Golden Arch in the night sky of a small fishing village out in the woods smelled of desperation, as did a box of Wheaties prominently placed in the middle of the dining room table, or the watching of a Scooby-Doo episode.
To give one an idea of how uninspired the humour is, the audience is given an early indication of this in a short montage that shows Barnabas reintegrating at Collinswood. This particular montage shows the mansion being refurbished thanks to Barnabas’ money, but it also shows Barnanas sleeping upside down over his bed, in a cupboard, and upside down again – all in plain view of the aged maid, who seems blind to him.
Thrice the joke, thrice laughter!!! Except not really.
There was a fun cameo by Alice Cooper during the afore-mentioned “balls” sequence, though. I don’t know why he was in there, nor do I understand the film’s insistence on plugging ’70s classics into it. Nothing subtle at all – just the hits. Urgh. But Cooper was fun to watch, and somehow seemed far younger than he’s looked lately. Was it a stand in? Did they use cgi? Or is there some sort of witchcraft involved?
It was also a fabulous opportunity for Johnny Depp to play a vampire. If anyone was suited for the genre, he was – what with his sleek look and dark gaze. And, although this Barnabas isn’t exactly what I would have liked to see, it was still a good casting choice. Actually, Depp had an obsession with the show so, really, he cast himself – after getting Burton to make the film (which took years for him to get around to, finally).
Depp is by far the most enjoyable of the cast members, although that had more to do with the part itself than the others’ lack of ability…
Because, let’s face it, this was a star-studded cast! Lovely Ava Green chewed the scenery deliciously as the villain, Michelle Pfeiffer played it cool as the mistress of the house, Elizabeth, Jonny lee Miller was brilliant as Roger, Chloë Grace Moretz was feisty and fetching as Carolyn and Helena Bonham Carter brought a suitable moodiness to Dr. Hoffman. That’s not even taking into consideration the cameos, such as that of Christopher Lee.
Aside from being unfathomably boring and reheated, ‘Dark Shadows’ suffers from Burton’s usual style-over-substance issues. He tried his best to bring us up to speed with the characters and setting by giving us an ADD-addled prologue that took place in the mid-18th century, but then he spent the rest of the show giving us a plot as threadbare and contrived as that of the original soap opera. Except that it’s not a soap opera.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
He also likes to defy logic whenever possible. It’s like he doesn’t exist in the real world, and yet he doesn’t seem to understand basic principles:
In the prologue, Barnabas throws himself off a cliff, some 300 meters down, after his beloved commits suicide. Neither get crushed by the impact of their fall against the huge rocks awaiting them; both are essentially delicious corpses. But it’s clear that, at best, they would have been mangled, if not obliterated by the fall.
I suppose that there may be two reasons for this: 1) Burton wanted to keep the film’s rating relatively low, something that the traumatizing sight of blood and guts wouldn’t help, and 2) they wanted Barnabas to look good. Because, after his jump, he is immediately turned into a vampire, thereby saving his life. Had he been crushed, Lord knows what kind of nasty Barnabas we’d have ended up with.
The filmmakers did the same thing for the ending, essentially regurgitating the same idea twice. The difference here, however, is that Depp flung himself after his bien-aimé and somehow managed to outfall her, catching up with her in midflight. Ahem… it must have been his weight, because we all know that men are much heavier than women, so they fall faster. Especially waif-thin Depp.
It would have been so much easier to just come up with some other spectacular death, one that doesn’t demand that the audiences turn their brains off. But Burton never considers that. Style trumps all things.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
In the end, ‘Dark Shadows’ feels like homogenized Tim Burton: it feels like all other Tim Burton films, looks like all other Tim Burton films, and sounds like all other Tim Burton films. But with a twist: it adds the extra element of homogenized Hollywood: all the same jokes as Hollywood, all the same plot twists as Hollywood, all the same soundtrack-selling tracks as Hollywood.
Perhaps in going with the familiar, Burton and company were trying to make the original cult classic accessible. Instead, they made it unwatchable. Perhaps they were presciently trying to make a camp classic, something that people will be watching years down the line, late at night, after having ingested some mood-altering substance or another.
I fear that this may be ‘Dark Shadows’s only saving grace, because this motion picture is as forgettable as it was all-too-familiar.
Date of viewing: October 6, 2013