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Okay, Johnny Depp, I know I said that we’d have to have a serious talk if your next project after that last Pirates of the Caribbean movie wasn’t up to snuff, but in this case, I believe we can make an exception.  In what seemed like a perfect project to be directed by your BFF, Tim Burton, the big screen version of the late-sixties gothic soap opera, Dark Shadows is so irredeemably awful that there’s no way I can blame you for everything that is wrong about it.  Indeed, the only reason to suffer through this inept misfire is your on-point performance as the vampire, Barnabas Collins.

At the end of the seventeenth century, a family leaves the security of Old Blighty to establish new roots in the New World.  The Collins clan hopes to increase their wealth by making the most of a fertile New England seaside village.  The fortune from the Collins fishing trade surpasses all expectations and soon the very town and nearly everything in it bears the family name.  Master Barnabas, heir to the Collins’ empire, takes advantage of all that his youth and position has to offer, including the carnal delights of a lusty housemaid.  Barnabas learns the old adage about a woman scorned the hard way when the servant reveals herself to be a powerful witch who takes revenge on the entire Collins family, exacting an unimaginable punishment on the one who broke her heart.  Angelique won’t do something as simple and mundane as kill Barnabas, oh no, that’s far too easy.  Instead, she curses him to live as a vampire, undead and bloodthirsty, and then leads of mob of frightened townsfolk to bury him alive in the Collinsport woods, where he remains for the next two centuries.  While Barnabas has taken his long slumber, the Collins family live on, more or less, with his descendents still inhabiting Collinwood Manor and running the family fishing business.  The newest Collinses are a dysfunctional lot; the mansion is a cobwebbed, dusty shadow of its former glory, and the cannery hangs on by a thread due to some heavy competition.  A construction crew unearths the coffin where Barnabas was consigned and thanks to the men’s refreshing blood supply, the young master returns home at last, but not without noticing some unfamiliar oddities along the way.  A lot has changed around town in two hundred years, but Barnabas greets the novelties with aplomb.  His relatives aren’t quite as affable and it’s only the vampire’s awareness of secret treasure troves around Collinwood that induces strapped-for-cash family matriarch Elizabeth to allow Barnabas to stay with the proviso that he never reveals his undead tendencies.  For all the changes around Collinsport, there’s something that’s remained firmly in place; the other old family in town is that of the Collins’ business rival, the latest in the line being an attractive young woman called Angie who seems very familiar to Barnabas.  The combination of spell casting and an unending thirst for revenge has been very good to the witch and she has seen to the slow decline of the Collins brood.  His clan and its good name mean everything to Barnabas and so he vows to fight the sorceress and reclaim the Collins family honour and fortune.

Trailers and TV spots in advance of the film did not look make Dark Shadows look like a promising prospect.  It seemed as if it would be a fairly standard fish out of water comedy based around the Old World vampire’s culture shock after suddenly being revived in 1972.  I expected a lot of quaint but predictable jokes about bellbottoms, afros and the sexual revolution that would’ve shocked poor old Barnabas.  Would that I had been so fortunate.  Dark Shadows isn’t funny enough to be called a comedy and not remotely thrilling, dramatic or scary enough to portray the original television show’s Hammer horror film leanings.  The movie has no idea what it wants to be and ends up being nothing; just a gorgeous-looking mess of a film.  The gothic visuals, including and especially the overdone, underkept Collinwood Manor are as perfect as one would expect from Hollywood’s King Goth, Tim Burton.  The omnipresent fog and half-lit silvertones that permeate the film are completely his mien.  If only as much attention had been paid to the narrative: The script is all over the place; neither focusing on the comedy aspect, nor on creating a creepy thriller.  There’s no development of the other characters’ backstories, which one wouldn’t necessarily care about but for some inexplicable last minute plot developments.  Neither do we care about the romantic subplot between Barnabas and a modern-day reincarnation of the woman he lost centuries ago to Angelique’s evil spell.  The film’s purportedly hilarious set piece is a no-holds-barred, gravity-defying sex scene between the reunited vampire and witch for a booty call that wrecks everything in sight.  The scene is so tiresome, unoriginal and drawn out that I couldn’t wait for it to end.  Dark Shadows is so desperately unfunny that I actually hoped for some of those corny, anachronistic ‘Isn’t 1972 hilarious?’ jokes.  Save for Depp’s quirking it up as the time-displaced vamp, in trowel-thick white pancake and gray blusher, high collars, velvets and Bela Lugosi-inspired hand gestures, many of the performances are strangely listless.  I was shocked at how low energy the usually excellent Michelle Pfeiffer was as Elizabeth Collins, which is unfortunate as there was the potential for some great scene-chewing there.  For the umpteenth time costarring in a Tim Burton movie, Mrs. Burton, Helena Bonham Carter, plays a psychiatrist living in the estate, supposedly to try to bring the family together.  She doesn’t have much to do playing the boozy, self-medicating opportunist, outside of trying not to blind her costars with her hideous neon orange wig.  What’s uncomfortable is watching Eva Green make a go of the lusty, vengeful Angelique when it seems that the character’s modeled at least physically after Burton’s ex-girlfriend and muse, Lisa Marie.  Green normally looks a bit witchy and seems only too happy to show her cleavage, so I don’t know how much of a stretch was involved in her portrayal of the overheated enchantress.  One gets the impression that there was more to the characters played by Jonny Lee Miller as twitchy, would-be playboy, Uncle Roger, and Chloë Grace Moretz as Carolyn, Elizabeth’s sulky teenage daughter.  Moretz starts off very promisingly as the bratty Lolita on Quaaludes, playing her with all the campy gusto one would wish from a Burton ingénue, and then is practically never heard from again until much later.  Dark Shadows is such a hot mess that one can’t even write it off to Tim Burton’s occasionally shaggy direction style.  This was just bad.  I can’t have that sit-down with Johnny Depp over this one; it’d be like kicking someone when they’re down.  If there needs to be any type of conversation, perhaps Depp needs to have a heart-to-heart with his buddy Burton about what’s become of the filmmaker’s once peerless creative vision?  Maybe he could throw in a word about making better movies while he’s at it.

Quirky, campy, fun, weird, original; there are many adjectives I expect to apply when speaking of a Tim Burton movie.  The one descriptor I never imagined using for any film from the director, which his Dark Shadows is in abundance, is boring.

Bring on Frankenweenie.  Maybe it’ll help erase the memory of Dark Shadows.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

May 11th, 2012

 

 

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Photos

(Courtesy of  Warner Brothers)

 

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