Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Dark Shadows, a Review

Cut to the chase--is it worth seeing? Well, all the jokes are already in the trailer, so save yourself 110 minutes and watch that instead.

Or, go see more of it, but it's not any different, or any better--it's the same as the trailer, just longer.

While it's fashionable to blame Burton for needlessly prolonging a creative partnership with Depp that has gone stale, the real problem here is the script. It's clear that Burton wanted to do "Dark Shadows" without the glacial pacing and chintzy production budget of 1960s television soaps--but he needed a story, and he didn't really get one. Instead, he got a script from Seth Grahame-Smith, the instigator of the current fad of mashing up classic (public domain!) literature and monsters. So the man who gave us "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" is the writer of what passes for a story in this movie.

[Just a comment on "PP&Z"--the idea is very funny; the execution is tedious in the extreme. Appreciate the concept, but don't bother trying to read it, since it doesn't go anywhere from the premise. Just like the movie!]

The problems are many--the movie fails to be scary at any level, fails to be funny most of the time, fails to offer any insight into why the Collins family believes that family is important--they just keep saying it, but is there any reason to believe them? After all, fully half the remaining family can hardly stand to be around the place at all. The snotty teen played by Chloe Moretz and the loathsome brother played by Johnny Lee Miller don't believe in the family. That leaves Michelle Pfeiffer (looking DAMN FINE) as the impoverished remaining Collins, the little boy who sees ghosts, and Johnny Depp.

And really, the only reason you are going to see a Johnny Depp/Tim Burton movie is to see Johnny Depp. And he delivers a variation on the many foppish, mannered, fish-out-of-water characters he has played in all the Tim Burton movies. His Barnabas Collins has creepy long fingernails, lacy sleeves, a walking cane, and a grudging acceptance of his need for blood. He does pull off looking like a callow teen in the early moments of the film, when he first rejects Eva Greene's affections--is that acting or post-production that gives him that dewy-skinned look? He manages to look both repellent and attractive as a pasty vampire, which is kind of a sweet spot occupied only by Jack Black in my personal pantheon. Differently, of course.

The plot is stupid, and only sketched in as necessary to allow for Burton's patented artistic design. The docks at Collinsport are suitably nautical, the decaying Collins plant is creepy and then fixed up just in time to be gloriously burned down. The Collinses put on a "ball" or a "happening" which is an excuse to get Alice Cooper to perform. He's about as creepy as the rest of "Dark Shadows"--the man may be in his mid-sixties, but he doesn't look bad in the make-up. The Collins mansion, despite having ostensibly been built in 1775 is full on Edgar Allen Poe Victorian gothic, full of hidden panels and subterranian vaults. Not sure how this was done in pre-American Revolution Maine on the proceeds of a fishing business, but it's best not to ask.

Also, don't ask how the Revolutionary era Collinses amassed a treasure hoard of gold and large gems either. Fish must have been a better business back in those days, back when Maine was still part of Massachusetts.

But with the treasure hoard and vampire hypnosis, Barnabas manages to rebuilt the Collins fish cannery and supposedly re-establish the family as the premiere social force in this incredibly tiny town. But his old spurned lover Eva Green (okay, her character is Angelique) is still around and still immortal, and still holds a grudge. She tries to seduce him, tries to re-bury him, and finally tries to kill him and destroy everything he loves. There is the obligatory final battle scene, most impressive for the way Eva Greene's skin cracks like the shell of a hard boiled egg as they fight. There is the completely superfluous element of Chloe Moritz's character also being a werewolf, which--wha? Why, and who cares, and don't even bother.

There is a governess with wide eyes and a Christina Ricci-ness look to her who is the double of the woman Johnny Depp loved back in 1775 and Eva Greene killed back then--so of course she is going to get killed again, except that Depp manages to bite her in time to turn her into a vampire so she survives the fall that her predecessor didn't. Helena Bonham Carter does some fun stuff with a character that is as superfluous as the werewolf thing. In fact, she seems to be around mostly because she is in every Burton film, and because there was a psychologist in the original soap. Other than that, she pulls off a few funny bits as a drunk who wants to use Depp's blood to stop her own aging.

Mostly pointless, only for people willing to overlook the lack of point, or die-hard fans of the original series. The entire project smacks of being an American version of the Doctor Who reboot--a director with a deep love of a neglected original, wanting to give the property the kind of attention possible with a decent budget and the advances in CGI. However, Russell T. Davies got some good storytelling into his reboot--Burton didn't.

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