Saturday, May 19, 2012

Dark Shadows

Johnny Depp is Barnabus Collins with a little more Max Schrek than Bela Lugosi influence
**1/2 out of ***

I might say I've always felt ambivalence regarding the work of director Tim Burton. There's a general attitude among movie fans that Burton only started to suck recently. I don't see it that way. To me, Burton has always been a style-over-substance artist going back and forth between making dazzling original experiences like Edward Scissorhands to misguided moronic adaptations like 2001's Planet of the Apes. Then there's mediocre Burton fare like Batman Returns, Sleepy Hollow, and now Dark Shadows. If there is a merit to all of these films, it is that they are interestingly produced, great-looking, and memorable. Except for Alice in Wonderland which I thought was his most intolerable and awful looking movie.

Dark Shadows never gets to be very good but it is much better than the marketing would have led me to believe. Earlier this year, I expressed dismay over the coming of this film for being yet-another Johnny Depp/Tim Burton collaboration. It's not that they don't work well together, they do. My resentment is how Burton isn't being adventurous with his career. Depp in this movie is a symbol that we're getting more of the same and we are. The movie simply passes for me as watchable. 

The story follows an eighteenth-century aristocrat cursed, turned into a vampire, bound and buried for two-hundred years, and is circumstantially broken free in the nineteen-seventies. He then returns to his manor discovers his house to be inhabited by his descendents who are a dysfunctional bunch and only getting by with their inherited property.

I've never seen the famous soap opera on which this story is based, but I still see a story with a lot of potential to be personal on a level that Burton is not capable. The purpose of Barnabus' stay in the modern Collins house is simply stated, but I never felt it through a movie that was having too much invested in the fish-out-of water aspect to the story of an ancient vampire in a nostalgia-fantasy version of the nineteen-seventies. Burton, no matter what the subject matter, is always trying to get a chuckle out of his audience and with most of his movies (especially this one) he succeeds, even if it is at the expense of some required sincerity.

The cast is very good, especially the newcomer, Bella Heathcote as the manor's new governess. Eva Green is perfectly seductive as Angelique, the witch. Chloƫ Grace Moretz continues to warm up for playing Carrie in a young career which has been focused on playing young girls with sinister problems.

The song selections are choice, particularly the traveling montage during the opening credits set to Knights in White Satin. It establishes a tone for the film and the idea that this young governess is going to be our sane vessel through an experience of monsters and weirdos. Sadly though, that tone and idea don't survive very long in a very unfocused story.   

Burton built a career from an aesthetic talent for filling the screen with gloomy atmosphere and people of pale complexion. For me, this played out perfectly in my personal favorite of his films, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. That was the rare case of Burton having a deep interest in the adapted material that almost seemed tailored for him. Most of the time however, his adaptations feel like he should have made this project a fun-house ride at Disney World instead of a movie.      
Check out David Edelstein's review on Fresh Air

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