Dark Shadows Review By Adam
Dark Shadows finds director Tim Burton heading into dangerous territory and possibly the most maligned subgenre in all of cinema: the television to film adaptation. While almost all of these adaptations are fraught with danger (the most recent addition Kath & Kimderella is living proof), at least Burton has chosen a property that is fitting to his freakish and macabre sensibilities: 1960s gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. This iteration of Shadows has many of the recurring elements of Burton’s filmography — a gaudy Johnny Depp performance, intricately gothic production design, stunning visuals and an evocative Danny Elfman score — but with one new addition: the involvement of new kid on the block, screenwriter Seth Graeme-Smith (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). Unfortunately, this collaboration is not a fruitful one and following Graeme-Smith’s lead, Burton has made, quite possibly, the worst film of his 30-year career.
Starting in 1760, Shadows follows the misfortunes of the wealthy Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp). After failing to reciprocate the love felt by one of his conquests — the witchcraft practicing family maid, Angelique (Eva Green) — a series of awful events befalls Barnabas, the worst and (most permanent) being a vampiric curse. Attacked by his community for his newly demonic form, Barnabas is captured and buried in a chained coffin, where he remains until being dug up by a construction crew in 1972. Upon his release, Barnabas sets out to reconnect with the Collins clan. But when he meets the highly dysfunctional Collins family of the 70s he is mortified to learn that the family’s fishery has dwindled and their wealth is on the wane. Of most concern to Barnabas is the Collins’s main competitor, a woman who looks eerily like Angelique.
Despite directing the first film I ever saw — 1989’s classic Batman — I’m lukewarm on director Tim Burton. I think that he is one of contemporary cinema’s most idiosyncratic filmmakers — and a master visual stylist — but I often find his work to be a case of diminishing returns. Burton rarely works outside his comfort zone and as a result his films — despite how startlingly they are realised — have become somewhat mundane, and are now in danger of approaching kitsch. Shadows sees him, once again, having created a gothic toned quirk-fest. This material is ripe for Burton’s twisted fairytale aesthetic, but it is missing the often tragic romanticism found at the heart of his best films (Edward Scissorhands). For all of its faults, Shadows’s visuals are beyond reproach and Burton still retains the ability to craft striking images.
Almost all of Shadows‘s problems can be attributed to Seth Graeme-Smith’s screenplay. From its disjointed prologue, up until its underwhelming denouement, Shadows’s screenplay frequently fails to engage. Graeme-Smith’s other 2012 film, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, is a strong contender for the worst film I have seen this year and Shadows shares many of its missteps. Shadows lurches from scene to scene and has an utter lack of dramatic continuity. Graeme-Smith fails to succinctly establish his characters — which he has way too many off — and often their motivations are completely lacking or explained via staggeringly unsubtle exposition. Shadows also has a problematic lack of wit. The fish out of water dynamic is one of cinema’s most enduring and effective comedic notions, but Graeme-Smith fails to create clever or memorable scenarios for Barnabas. A stuffy vampire (let alone one played by Johnny Depp) recalibrating to the world of the 70s should be comedic gold, but Graeme-Smith’s jokes often faceplant and generate more groans than laughs.
Johnny Depp was once one of the most interesting actors of the modern age. Despite his sexiest man alive looks, Depp bucked against convention and gravitated towards difficult, obscure material – including early collaborations with Burton. Now, Depp’s filmography is (almost exclusively) a rogue’s gallery of made-up, nervy freaks. What was once non-conformist has now become utterly commercial. Don’t agree? As of 2012, Depp is — according to Guinness World Records — the highest paid actor in the world. I feel that Depp desperately needs to re-invent himself, he needs to take a break from his Peter Pan/Michael Jackson bullshit and he needs to play real men with real emotional issues. 2009’s Public Enemies was a step in the right direction but with a Jerry Bruckheimer produced Lone Ranger (he is playing Toto) and more Pirates sequels on the horizon, I think Enemies is the exception and not the rule. Depp isn’t necessarily bad in Shadows but there is staleness in his characterisation: Barnabas is another toffy, pale-faced prig and is virtually indistinguishable from Depp’s other recent creations, and like some vaudeville fairy, Depp seems to do the majority of his acting with his fingers.
Burton has gathered a great cast to surround his main man (eight collaborations and counting) but Graeme-Smith’s script gives them very little to work with. There is a great selection of female talent in Shadows — Helena Bonham Carter, Michelle Pfeiffer, Chloë Grace Moretz, Bella Heathcote and Eva Green – but most function as little more than elaborate set dressing; one wishes as much time was spent on their characters as it is was on their gorgeous visages. Eva Green is the only actress to get a fully formed character and she is possibly the best thing in Shadows. Her Angelique is a femme fatale par excellence, and the gorgeous Green seems to be purpose-built for Burton’s gothic aesthetic. Jackie Earle Haley and Johnny Lee Miller are both well-cast but ultimately wasted as their characters do little to serve the main plot.
Despite the rampant mediocrity of Shadows, the film grossed over $200 million bucks at the box office. There is blatant sequel baiting all over Shadows — and the film is rumoured to be the start of a franchise — but I doubt that anyone will be clamouring to spend another two hours with these thinly drawn characters. One for Burton and Depp completists only.