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Dark Shadows (2012)

Dark Shadows film posterDirector: Tim Burton
Writers: Seth Grahame-Smith (screenplay and story), John August (story)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Jackie Earl Haley
Certificate: 12A
Running time:113 minutes
Cinema Release Date: 11 May 2012

Depp and Burton are something of a collaborative nightmare, with a twisted partnership spanning two decades. It began with the cult masterpiece Edward Scissorhands in 1990, a film which plucked Depp from the chiselled jaws of what looked set to be a career centred entirely on his boyish good looks and set him on his true path of the beautiful character actor. It would seem that Depp has been rather grateful to Burton for this, as they have worked together as leading man and director on eight films since. The latest film, Dark Shadows, offers a strange blend of horror, comedy and drama in a universe easily recognisable as deriving from the imagination of Tim Burton. However, one must ask whether the Depp/Burton legacy has become tired in its twenty-second year?

Based on the long running sixties American gothic soap-opera of the same name (of which Johnny Depp is said to have been a fan) Burton has adapted the theatrical release with a comedic twist. It tells the story of Barnabas Collins (Depp), a two hundred-year-old vampire (and former wealthy playboy) who was created and imprisoned by Angelique (Green), a witch-scorned woman. After being imprisoned for nearly two centuries, Collins is unearthed in the 1970’s and thereafter seeks to re-establish the Collins family’s waning fortunes, which are still being thwarted by the immortal Angelique. What then follows is a bizarre mix of cultural commentary and a comedic clash of the period-gap, family drama and the camp supernatural.

Barnabas falls for the mysterious Victoria Winters, a woman who was lured to the Collins’ mansion by the ghost of Josette, his former lover, under the pretence of working as a Governess for the troubled young David, Barnabas’ descendent. The family, headed by the reluctant matriarch Elizabeth (Pfeiffer), is so dysfunctional that they have employed an in-house psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Bonham Carter), an alcoholic with an agenda, to counsel them. Barnabas sets out to improve the ‘cursed’ family’s luck, by revealing a secret stash of treasures and using them to rebuild the family’s ailing fishing business. But the rival company is run by Angelique who still harbours an insatiable lust for Barnabas and a hatred for the Collins family.

There are several methods of approaching Dark Shadows. Those who are familiar with the original soap would be unlikely to appreciate the tongue-in-cheek humour and somewhat offbeat irony which the film is shrouded in. Fans of Depp/Burton films will adore the art direction and the sets, which are quite delicious and atmospheric. However, for most part, the comedy and the visual styling are the most favourable features of a film which, aside from the expected strong performances from what is an exceptional but predictable cast, lacks considerably in substance.

Condensing the basic plot of an entire soap opera into a feature film could be thought of as overly ambitious – the attention paid to each character and the time they are given to develop brutally demonstrates this. Although the acting, especially the comic timing, is impeccable across the board, caring about the characters is pretty much impossible. The love story which develops between the vampire and the governess is clunky and easily forgotten, Angelique’s lustful obsession with Collins is dragged out and many of the plot’s finer details are whitewashed or overlooked entirely as the storyline spins its wheels and falls flat on its face. By the final act, it’s unlikely you’ll care any more. Green’s cleavage will see you through the last few laps.

If one were to generously overlook the huge plot and character shortcomings, there’s still plenty to enjoy – especially for the horror buff, as there are several juicy nods to horror and the horror culture which the original Dark Shadows would be considered a very important part of. There are brief but pleasing cameos by the original shock-rocker Alice Cooper and Christopher Lee, arguably the scariest man alive. And for fans of Freddy Krueger, the latest man to wear the clawed glove (Haley) plays a key role as the entranced subservient of Collins. It is consistently amusing throughout and visually superb, and at times is quite reminiscent of Beetlejuice (1988) and the surreal cult fantasy Death Becomes Her (Robert Zemeckis: 1992). Even the most hardened of Burton’s critics could not deny his penchant for the witty and eccentric mired in gothic prettiness. Set to a Danny Elfman score, of course.

Fans of Depp/Burton will probably like this film. It isn’t deep or powerful but it is intrinsically them, and people will keep going to see their films just for their style and substance. On the basis of this film, one could argue their partnership at least requires a hiatus of sorts, because Dark Shadows is a collaborative trough, whichever way you look at it. Still, at least Depp fails to physically sparkle at any given time. For a modern film about a vampire, that’s a definite plus.


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