Sunday, May 13, 2012

First Impressions: Dark Shadows

Before I went to see Tim Burton’s big screen production of Dark Shadows I had read a few reviews and, honestly, they were mixed. The more positive ones stated that it was a film that contained the best and the worst of Burton’s filmmaking. There were also a lot of negative ones and many of these began with words akin to *I used to run home from school to see Dark Shadows*. My advice, if a review begins with a phrase like that, ignore it…

This is not because the overall view is necessarily wrong but because the way it has been judged is unfair. Since the film released its trailer (and the trailer is too comically orientated for the overall tone of the film) there has been outraged spat furiously across the internet. This comes from those who were fans of the original series. I never saw any of it until recently, indeed most outside the US never did. I did, regular readers will recall, look at the Barnabas Collins UK set very recently and I enjoyed it… I enjoyed it despite itself, despite visible equipment, rocking sets and fluffed lines. The soap opera was compelling (but, of course, that is what the soap opera formula is renowned for) but this film should be judged on its own merits and failures, and not through rose-tinted glasses that have been wedged to one’s nose with a fanatical hand.

As I look at this, my first impression of the film, I shall attempt to look at it on its own merits and will therefore offer spoilers, and if the previous paragraphs seem harsh I will say that I stand by them especially as the film is flawed enough in its own right.

Why flawed? Well the film, I think, is a vehicle of missed opportunity that contains issues that were either a very clever pastiche of the Soap Opera formula or unforgivable lapses in logic. It was a film that looks gorgeous on the surface but lacked substance underneath and perhaps included too much as those who created the story (John August and Seth Grahame-Smith) lost track of what to par down and what to keep.

Barnabas turned
The basic story (for those who don’t know) is that Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) was the son of a fishing magnate. The family travelled from Liverpool to New England, when Barnabas was a child, and founded the town of Collinsport. One of their servants, Angelique (Eva Green), fell in love with Barnabas but, despite a dalliance with her, he was in love with one Josette DuPres (Bella Heathcote). Angelique, however, was a witch. She killed his parents and then caused Josette to throw herself from a cliff into the sea and turned Barnabas into a vampire as he threw himself off the same cliff (I actually thought it might have been nice to make his suicide the source of the vampirism, but nevermind). She then had him captured by an angry mob and chained in a coffin that was then buried in the woods – cut to the 1970s and workmen dig up the coffin.

Barnabas and Angelique
This is an example of where, and I am not suggesting that their judgement was wrong on this particular count, the storywriters couldn’t decide what to keep in and what not to from the original story and the 90s remake Dark Shadows – the revival. The Barnabas awakening story is not completed in the original series set I mentioned and that is close to 8 hours of programming, and yet the background is not touched on at all. Perhaps we didn’t need the rapid blow by blow at the head of the film, perhaps they might have added it in during the actual running time. I am ambivalent on this point. However, as Barnabas returns to Collinwood, copes with the modern world and tried to recover the family fortunes as the Collins’ business has fallen into decay, due to the actions of the still living Angelique, we meet several characters who were in the original soap at one time or another. These characters, perhaps, need not have all been in the film and, certainly, many are wasted.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Elizabeth 
Whilst I thought Michelle Pfeiffer was excellent as family matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, other actors were not given enough role in which to shine. These included Jackie Earle Haley as drunken handyman Willie Loomis who was relegated from the character who discovered Barnabas (in earlier versions) to little more than a vampire's chauffeur with little else to do. The sin of this was that Haley gave a highlight performance as Rorschach in Watchmen and could have given much more to this film, given the chance. Child of the family David (Gulliver McGrath) was little more than a cipher for part of the finale. Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller, Dracula 2001) was pointless and disposed of later in the film with some embarrassment due to the fact that the script had nothing for him to do. The characters of Maggie Evans and Victoria Winter were merged into one, played by Bella Heathcote, who may have been the reincarnation of or haunted by Josette, the script wasn’t sure, but who vanished for a huge slice of film.

Carolyn publicity still
Dr Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) perhaps, again, shouldn’t have been there. However, her character’s storyline was actually the story that had some (flimsy) substance during the middle of the film. So perhaps they should have beefed it up, rather than it being a fairly pointless moment. The only incidental actor to really shine was Chloë Grace Moretz (Let Me In, Room 6) as teenage daughter Carolyn Stoddard. The script tried to make her – like most other characters – a prop to play Barnabas against and I think it a testament to the actress that she resisted that and became almost a spirit of the age. Unfortunately she was twisted into a virtual deus ex machina in the finale. When it comes to that finale, using characters as ciphers (or not at all) and flimsy, ill-defined storylines prevented viewer emotional investment. A shame as Burton can do audience emotional involvement - Big Fish proved that.

Bella Heathcote as Josette
As for Barnabas, I actually liked the mannerisms that Depp invested the character with – these owed a great deal to Nosferatu I felt. However there was little, again, of story. Depp and Burton captured well the man out of time and added in most of the film's comedy around Barnabas. However, when it came to story there were several disappointing threads: win Victoria/Josette back – no story of substance; reclaim the family fortune – solved in five minutes by opening a secret passage, retrieving the hidden treasure and paying for renovations (oh, and to be fair, hypnotising Christopher Lee, which was rather cool); and take on Angelique, which amounted to little more than verbal sparring and some nookie, until the finale at least.

A man out of time
As for lore, this was confused and one of the reasons I mentioned possible lapses in logic. Barnabas will burn in sunlight, however seems to be okay to go out wearing dark glasses, a hat and carrying an umbrella. Later, sunlight strikes him (through a window) and he sets alight… on the shoulders… which are covered. This was either a logical lapse (such combustibility would have made covering up an irrelevance) or a clever comment on the illogical lapses that occur through soap operas (in which case it was too clever for its own good). After that, other than needing blood to live and not having a reflection, there is very little lore offered. The film also isn’t sure as to whether an exchange of blood or a bite is necessary for turning.

Johnny Depp as Barnabas
The look of the film was great – Burton films invariably look good, for the most part – but it didn’t know how dark it wanted to be. Barnabas kills several men when awakened and most of this is off screen, fair enough, but when it came to an attack on a group of hippies Burton pulled from the scene leaving us with screams and this was emblematic of the whole film. It had the Burton characteristic artistic dark streak. That worked with, say, Bettlejuice where there was a genuinely dark character at the centre of the stylistic cartoon-esque darkness, but there was no character that struck me as being dark in his or herself and thus he needed to take the film into more visceral realms, as he did with Sleepy Hollow – in my opinion at least.

Overall I found the film average. I will watch again, I will enjoy Depp’s performance for what it is (and enjoy Chloë Grace Moretz stealing her scenes), I will chuckle at the genuinely amusing moments and I will enjoy the obvious style but I will mourn the lack of story and absence of substance. EDIT: After re-watching on DVD I have decided that this should be scored at 5 out of 10 - and I think I am being generous as, despite the look, performances from the key stars and my love of Burton films this is a disjointed, narrative free effort.

The imdb page is here.


Unknown said...

Another excellent review. It was hard to be objective with this film as some expectation could not be avoided. As you said, judging it objectively and on its own merit was the goal. I think the trailer did a good job of setting up expectations of the film, however. My biggest problem with the film is that it was never really clear what it was trying to be. Was it a comedy? A melodrama? A drama? It seemed like it was trying to be all that and ended up failing on all counts because of it. The only character I even ended up really connecting with and caring about in the story was Victoria Winters. The film started out really excellent with that first train scene and the Moody Blues playing and I was excited to see where it would go from there, but fairly early on it just started getting silly. I think they made extra efforts to keep all the fish out of water and 70s jokes into the storyline and the story suffered because of it.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Thanks Margaret, you are right in that it never really knew what it wanted to be.

I can see how you might connect with Victoria, or begin to, with that first scene but she just vanishes within the film for large sections. In some respects, when we got her actual backstory it was only an effort to maintain the fish out of water element by making her much the same (for other reasons, of course) and much, much more could have been done with that storyline.

Gabriel said...

Hello Taliesin

I was waiting for your first impression on this to see what you thought, and I'm afraid it's provided just another nail in the coffin for me not to see it at the cinema. I believe this is going to be a blu-ray special (if that).

This was a golden opportunity for Burton and/or Hollywood to bring back the silver age of the Gothic Vampire that us vampire genre fans miss since the Universal/Hammer days but alas this great chance did not eventuate.

I can only hope one of the few Dracula projects in production such as Dracula 3D, Last Voyage of the Demeter or Dracula Year Zero can give us older genre fans the ability to hark back to the pre-sparkle, vampire as the anti-hero, Gothicv castle in the gloomy European mountain days.....

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Demon Hunter G. One would hope that Dracula 3D will do that.

I saw reports just yesterday that "last voyage" seems to be back on the cards but, as far as I am aware (and stand to be corrected) year zero seems to have withered on the vine unfortunately.

Another potential gothic extravaganza is Styria (though a question marks hangs over whether it would get a cinema release), which is a remake of Carmilla.

Zahir Blue said...

Well, at the risk of going against a trend I really enjoyed it. The blend of humor, drama, romance worked for me personally and I ended up feeling for pretty much all the characters. But then, I do see it through the lens of a fan. That alone gives me an extra delight, although I was quite critical of many other versions. So, different strokes I guess. I was actually at the premiere (won tickets) then paid this last weekend to see it again.

Gabriel said...

Oh thanks for reminding me about Styria!

I looked it up again a few months ago, but all I could find were a few interviews and some lovely stills from the film.

That film looks like more of a return to form that we are expecting.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Zahir, I'm glad you enjoyed it and, don't get me wrong, I didn't hate it... I just found it average.

That said, as outlined, I failed to develop any emotional tie-in what-so-ever.

I did laugh, it has to be said, but the film wasn't a comedy, it just had comedy lines in it. Had it been played as a comedy I suspect it would have worked better for me.

Zahir Blue said...

The writer/director of Styria contacted me. The film should be at Cannes. More publicity efforts shall follow apace (and he promised I can be 'in' on a free screening!)

Taliesin_ttlg said...


If speaking to him in the future tell him to mail me if he wants an honest review here when his publicity machine gets rolling ;) |(cheeky)

Gabriel said...

Zahir Blue,

Thanks for the heads up about Styria!

I've been impressed with the stills I've seen, and I've read all the interviews I can find. I believe they were on your blog actually?

Please keep us posted :)

Gabriel said...

Additionally, I would LOVE if somehow we could get a STYRIA screening at the Bram Stoker festival in Whitby this year, since I'll be going *hint, hint*