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Mix and mis-match
A film review of DARK SHADOWS by Camus
  "Well, it's a tricky tone. We all recognized, when we talked about "Dark Shadows," part of its appeal was the weird nature of all the elements that went into it, very serious but it was on in the afternoon on a daily basis. So there are certain elements why we love the show but you couldn't necessarily adapt to a film."
Director Tim Burton


And Burton hits the proverbial nail square on having made the obvious, unsaid sub-textural leap that the movie screenplay had solved those 'tricky tones' and 'weird nature'. Uh... Not really. Dark Shadows is an extraordinary movie but not for the reasons you could splash on a poster. Based on a fondly remembered horror-soap opera which never made it to the UK, its elements and its mix are wildly fantastic in the true sense of the word and none of them sit flush with any other. It's like watching a child doing a jigsaw when you know each piece came from a different box with wildly divergent pictures on the covers. A movie must have some internal logic, some defining rule that the narrative lives by. We cannot feel for a character unless we know what threatens him/her, what may scar him/her. In the movie's own universe, ghosts, witches and vampires (and werewolves) are real. There's nothing wrong with that. But there is something wrong in palpable audience misunderstanding and being kept ignorant of these creatures' strengths and weaknesses.

After the debacle that was Van Helsing, I wondered almost aloud "How come werewolves now have no discernible issues with gravity?" There's the same lack of discipline here. Vampires have their own 'rules', their own historically hardened and over-clichéd traits, one of which, apparently, an umbrella and wrap around shades can solve for the most part but have Depp stand too close to a window and he bursts into flames. Hmm. Witches? Who knows what powers witches have in Burton's movie, or what their weaknesses are. Or why, when injured, they crack like porcelain. Ghosts? Uh... Ghosts whose simple scream is a weapon? If I don't know what it takes to kill a monster, how can I work myself up towards a catharsis once the hero has bested it? But then what if your hero is a monster, a mass murderer? That one aspect sat most uncomfortably throughout the movie. Depp (as it is assumed) is the hero of the piece, a man cursed by a witch for not loving her, made into a vampire so his torment will never end. OK. Problem is, he has to slaughter innocents to live and that – tragic as it is for Depp's Barnabus – pushes an audience away to a degree. His first murderous rampage is shot and cut like an action film and as you know it's Depp doing the killing, you ease back on the engagement. If it was a more dangerous actor, like Edward Norton or Sean Penn, you may feel differently. Casting, as it has been said many times, is fifty per cent of the director's work. I'm not sure the movie could have worked with this script or any other actor but with Depp as the hero, it's forced into a shape it cannot be – a jolly romp with a mass murdering fish-out-of-water attempting to find true happiness. With slapstick. Hmm. Tough sell.

I'm simply not on board here. I'm not even sure the movie is allowing me although I'm prepared to admit it may be a deficiency in me. Burton's only real misstep (which I believe he agrees with) in a wonderfully idiosyncratic career was the remake of Planet Of The Apes. I've been gently thrilled and amused and touched by almost all of his other pictures. This one left me behind. The trailer sells the movie as a comedy romp but there's a lot more unpleasantness that's skirted over in the goal of making Depp sympathetic. Now if this moral disparity were 'lemonade-snorted from the nose' hilarious, I'd forgive it. As it is, Depp's a murderer and as there are not many laughs to be had, my sympathies are not hurled at him with abandon. Burton's design trademarks are in place but the film never soars because of the mismatching of the elements. Having Michelle Pfeiffer pull a gun on the witch just seemed wrong at a point in the film when you should be solidly invested. Instead you scrunch your forehead and make some attempts at swatting away the buzzing fly of belief suspension.

In the 18th century, Barnabus Collins is cursed as a vampire after watching his bride-to-be plummet off a suicide spot under the spell of a jealous witch, Angelique. Entombed underground, he is released in 1972 (comic antics ensue) and he sets out to reinstate his family name to its former glory. The witch, meanwhile, knows the rules of this new time and is anxious to either woo Barnabus or entomb him once more. The members of the Collins family are a ragtag group of misfits, even more so than the movie's gleeful cross-genre tropes waltzing into each other with many a squashed toe. A failed father (Jonny Lee Miller) is encouraged to shape up or ship out. The matriarch of the family (Michelle Pfeiffer) is fighting a losing battle to keep the diverse Collins group together. Her daughter (Chloë Grace Moretz) is nursing a secret while idolising Marc Bolan (in 1972, what 15 year old wasn't?). And the alcoholic caretaker, the generator of the lion's share of much of the film's humour, is played by Jackie Earl Haley, a quarter star of one of my favourites, Breaking Away, and a full star as Rorschach in Watchmen.

And then there's Angelique. Say what you will about Eva Green. Go on, say it... But despite the subsequent psycho angst of appearing steadfastly naked throughout her first screen appearance in Bertolucci's The Dreamers, this actress has carved out an alluring series of roles based on the fame catapult that is being cast as a Bond girl. Her Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale was perfectly judged and she has that striking feature of being able to appear soft, sexy and warm and with a slight rearrangement of those cut glass features, suddenly aloof. Unlike most of the female race, I struggled to see what she could have seen in Depp's Barnabus. The irony is that class played its part in their separation (he was the land owning master and she the servant girl) and yet the actors give off the reverse quality. Eva Green doesn't look like a woman who would ever scrub a floor but would be at home on a throne and Depp way too theatrical and inherently silly to have such a noble bearing.

One or two final thoughts: Burton once more casts his wife in a pivotal but small role. I have enormous respect and enthusiasm for Helena Bonham-Carter. I admire her courage in taking her characters to places others may be a little nervous to venture. Her own ad-lib in Fight Club ("I haven't been fucked like that since Grade School...") is enough for her to be in my hall of fame. In Shadows she's an alcoholic doctor who treats Barnabus in an attempt to keep his body count lower. She's become part of the family and her fate in the film causes every one of my eyebrows to raise in ardent curiosity. What is the essence of her and Burton's relationship? Does she ask for these roles or are they foist upon her? It's playful and it's fun but knowing of the bond between them, you can't help wonder what these two are like together.

There are things to enjoy in Dark Shadows but for me the critical need for engagement was short circuited by the film's disjointed nature. This isn't a cross-genre movie as much as it's a bag of ingredients that defies the blender. Burton and Depp fans will flock no doubt but I'd be surprised if this film takes off. But then I do love surprises...

Dark Shadows

USA 2012
113 mins
Tim Burton
Christi Dembrowski
Johnny Depp
David Kennedy
Graham King
Richard D. Zanuck

Seth Grahame-Smith

story by
John August
Seth Grahame-Smith
based on the television series by
Dan Curtis
Bruno Delbonnel
Chris Lebenzon
Danny Elfman
production design
Rick Heinrichs
Johnny Depp
Michelle Pfeiffer
Helena Bonham Carter
Eva Green
Jackie Earle Haley
Jonny Lee Miller
Warner Bros.
release date (UK)
11 May 2012
review posted
21 May 2012

See all of Camus's reviews