"Dark Shadows:" A lesser Tim Burton

Last year when I wrote a review for Stephen Spielberg’s latest “War Horse,” I remarked that the movie “reeks of Spielberg.” I think the same can be said for Tim Burton’s (“Ed Wood,” “Edward Scissorhands”) new movie “Dark Shadows” (based on a 1960’s soap opera). A few indicators: Johnny Depp is in the starring role, Helena Bonham Carter has a role, and Danny Elfman provides the score. All in all it’s a dark and amusing vampire fantasy that provides some pleasures but loses its way about two thirds through.

We begin in 1752. Young Barnabas Collins and his parents leave Liverpool, England to start a new life in America. Flash forward two decades later as Barnabas (Depp) is living in Collinsport, Maine, a small fishing town. The inhabitant of Collins mansion, Barnabas is rich and powerful (thanks to his family’s fishing business), until one day when he breaks the heart of Angelique (Eva Green), a witch. First she kills his beloved Victoria (Bella Heathcote), then she turns him into a vampire so his suffering will never end, and to top things off she buries him alive. 

It’s all very dark and gloomy fare and since this is Burton, he goes heavy on the CGI and special effects. I don’t think there’s a single moment in this opening prologue, or any scene for that matter, that wasn’t shot in front of a green screen. The cinematography by Bruno Delbono is artificially dim; most of the scenes look like gothic paintings that have been digitalized— the sky is always gray or black, it’s always rainy and windy, and Elfman’s score is turned up to maximum volume. It’s a big, loud, overbearing and hollow way of showing us it’s a Burton picture. 

After that the movie calms down and settles into a nice groove (for a while at least). We’re still in Collinsport but it’s now 1972. It’s still the same sleepy fishing town. Collins mansion has become slightly run down: overgrown plants, cobwebbed walls and little lighting. The house is now inhabited by the dysfunctional Collins descendants: Elizabeth Collins (Michelle Pfeiffer), her brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), Elizabeth’s rebellious teenage daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), Roger’s son David (Gulliver McGrath), and Dr. Julia Hoffman (Bonham Carter), the family’s live-in psychiatrist. 

One night construction workers accidently dig up Barnabas’ coffin. After killing the workers (and gazing up at a lone yellow glowing McDonalds sign out in the woods, apparently), Barnabas makes his way back to the manor and decides to live with the dysfunctional Collins descendants. He helps get the fish business going again, restores the family name, and once again faces Angelique, who now runs a rival fish business.

In the meantime, we’re heavily barraged by 1970’s references. A number of songs from the likes of The Carpenters or Alice Cooper play over the soundtrack, Barnabas has an interaction with hippies, and so on. It’s all in good fun, which is the key strength of “Dark Shadows.”

A lot of people were outraged when they first heard that this movie was going to be a comedy. But we’re talking about an adaptation of a crudely done 60’s soap opera about vampires; how can that possibly be taken seriously? By not taking the material seriously and satirizing the 70’s, Burton has given the movie a sense of life and identity. The script by Seth Grahame Smith is incredibly energetic and nutty; most of the jokes come from 70’s references (the film “Superfly” plays at the local multiplex) or jokes that acknowledge how silly this whole set up is. 

The artificially murky cinematography still remains but Delbono finds little blotches of bright vibrant colors throughout (Angelique’s bright red convertible) to contrast against the gray gloom of the town, giving the movie an elegant and semi retro look.

This is Johnny Depp’s seventh film with Burton, and like every other one he gives an equally versatile and “out there” performance. Though, considering he plays a 17th-century vampire in the 70’s it feels necessary, as the other jokes in the film come from that peculiar culture clash. Barnabas is stiff and old fashioned, spouting old timey dialog, while everyone else shrugs or stares at him in confusion. When he sees Karen Carpenter performing on the TV he thinks she’s a “tiny songstress.” 

Unfortunately, when the movie reaches its third act, after Alice Cooper performs at a party at Collins Manor, it all goes downhill. All the comic wit and self-awareness is sucked out (no pun intended) and we’re left with a cold, lifeless corpse that’s borderline unwatchable. During a climactic confrontation between Barnabas and Angelique I was squirming in my seat waiting for it to end. The movie becomes overly serious and that heavy dose of Tim Burton-ness from the beginning comes back. Even the visuals become boring and distracting.

I wish that I could look past this mishap but it’s a glaring flaw, one that completely ruins what was fun and entertaining about the middle section of the movie. Die-hard fans of Burton will probably enjoy the film regardless - in terms of a Burton picture you get what you pay for - but this is definitely lesser Burton.

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