James Mannan is an actor, director, producer, and the owner of Liberty or Death productions. He has directed several short horror films along with the feature To Haunt You, produced W the Movie, and previously provided us with a top 10 weird movies list.
Although I watch a lot of films, for various reasons I’m not huge on reviewing them. However, seeing as I’ve been a “Dark Shadows” fan for over 40 years and a Tim Burton fan since Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), I thought perhaps his new epic deserved a paragraph or two from me. I saw it this past weekend on the Hamilton IMAX screen in what seemed liked a rather depopulated theater, but I’m not sure what their usual Sunday crowd is like–perhaps everyone else was taking their mom to dinner for Mother’s Day. At any rate. . .
I had followed the dribbling out of info and photos over the past year or so and had seen the infamous trailer that makes the film look like “Vampires Suck Part Deux”. As a disciple of the original series, none of this sat any better with me than I think it did for most fans. Once more we have Tim Burton going his own way without much regard for audience’s expectations or their affection for the originals (think especially Planet of the Apes or even more so his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the latter of which I still haven’t managed to make it all the way through.) I can understand not working toward expectations, but is it always necessary to tread on sacred ground with jackboots? This being said I will consider Dark Shadows from two different perspectives: as a remake of the original series, and as another entry in the auteur’s canon.
Many fans of the original series are going to hate this film. Hands down. Jonathan Frid’s beloved, beautiful, complex, tortured Barnabas Collins has been morphed into a typically Burtonesque, overly made-up, funny pages version of the character, ripe for rendering into dolls and action figures. Johnny Depp‘s pancake makeup is so thick and obvious he constantly makes the viewer think of someone made up as Dracula for Halloween (indeed, one wonders if this isn’t partly the idea–this is Tim and Johnny’s make-believe, pretend Barnabas, their version of going out for trick-or-treat.) The makeup of many of the other major characters is similarly troweled-on, particularly Helena Bonham Carter‘s Julia Hoffman and Eva Green’s Angelique. Beyond that, Depp’s face is not possessed of the same stately aquilinity as was Frid’s, and in this makeup he looks more like Eddie Munster (or perhaps Michael Jackson.) Other characters are monkeyed with under the surface. The strong willed Dr. Julia Hoffman of the series here becomes a jaded alcoholic, played by Carter with slovenly disdain. Green’s Angelique is all bitch with no real passion. Bella Heathcoat’s Josette/Victoria Winters are both doll-eyed ciphers. Jackie Earl Haley is largely wasted as Willie Loomis. Nods to the original are brief and obligatory; a snatch of Robert Cobert’s breakthrough series score before the credits and a faithfully executed Collinwood exterior, together with breathtakingly brief cameos from four of the original cast, including Frid (who died before the film was released).
Burton intentionally sets his film in 1972, the year directly following the original series’ cancellation–either to say he will not “mess with the past” or “I ain’t goin’ there”, take your pick. Despite that, the film picks up pretty much from the beginning of the Barnabas epic (Frid didn’t actually join the series till it had been going for nearly half a year.) Occasionally Seth Grahame-Smith’s script quotes the series to good effect, but not often. Apparently obligatory nods are given to other cinematic vamps, especially F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, and we get a cameo from ’50’s and ’60’s king vampire Chris Lee, nowadays a Burton regular. Beyond that, and aside from the basic key plot points, the film has almost nothing to do with the original series in either style or intent. It has a lot more in common with “Scooby Doo” or “The Munsters,” and while it isn’t quite the total send-up the trailers threatened, it is definitely “over-the-top” in a way the original never was. Grahame-Smith’s script tries to pack far far too many plot points into 113 minutes, some of which blindside the audience (like Carolyn’s inexplicable late-film advent as a werewolf.) In the meantime Burton seems far too fascinated with the idea of bringing in as many blasts-from-1972 as he can; perhaps in an attempt to pander to the ’70’s-chic fad, which I believe was over 10 year ago. In the end it’s the kind of film that often passes for comedy these days; high octane, breathless, shallow, dumbed-down. The humor here is more like those bad old vampire jokes about “iron poor blood” than anything truly dark and interesting.
Dispensing with its value as a “Dark Shadows” remake (or a comedy), I’m left to consider whether it succeeds simply as a Tim Burton film. Some of the script and character anomalies are explainable within the Burton canon. Burton is always more interested in style than substance and what passes for theme in most Burton films is the simplistic search for acceptance for the less-normal among us. The Burton/Depp Barnabas joins the long line-up of characters in this vein: Edward Scissorhands, Lydia in Beetlejuice, Pee Wee Herman, Batman, Ed Wood, Jack the Pumpkin King. In Burton’s world there is a nearly scrupulous distinction between those innocently, perhaps organically, drawn to darkness, versus those with a psychological twistedness, which may or may not be expressed physically (as it is with the Batman villains, for instance.) For Burton, it is the dark psyche that leads to doom (Catwoman, Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood.) In Dark Shadows we are presented with a Barnabas who, like Scissorhands, is basically childlike, innocent, blameless for his misdeeds (his vampirism is the result of a curse) and, frankly, not overly tortured by them. Indeed, the Depp Barnabas makes bare pretense toward disguising what he is (and looking like that how could he?) as if to say “I refuse to live a lie” (only Michelle Pfieffer’s Elizabeth Stoddard works to keep that news under wraps.) All of this works against the original’s “House of Secrets” tone, straightening out all the fun kinks in the plot, but nevertheless, in light of Burton’s canon it does make sense. In the end, Burton goes the extra mile in confirming Barnabas’s vampire-liberation, as he finds acceptance from his lost love Josette only when she too is made a vampire.
Lastly, does the film succeed on what is often named as Burton’s strong point, its visual presentation? It’s an attractive film overall, with good sets, good photography. But the lighting is often overly harsh, as mentioned before making the made-up characters appear clown-like and unconvincing. There’s no real delight or visual surprises, as if Burton’s bag of tricks has run dry (which, sadly, for many it seems it has). Despite all of this there are moments of fun to be culled from the film, and Depp is too clever an actor not to score occasionally even when being hampered by a bad script and tired direction. A bright point is Michelle Pfeiffer’s Elizabeth, one of the few portrayals in the film, aside from Depp’s, with some dimension (not that the breathless pace gave many of them much of a chance.)
I would not rate this at the apex of the Burton canon by any means, but neither would I say it belongs at the bottom (that I’ll reserve for the ridiculous, if high grossing, Alice in Wonderland or the aforementioned Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Final verdict, I would give it a gentle thumbs down, with the hope that the soon-to-come remake of “Frankeweenie,” which was trailered before Dark Shadows, will somewhat redeem Tim Burton.