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Dark Shadows

Take a look at this.

That bit of craziness was the trailer for The Devil’s Carnival, a rock opera short film from the people who made Repo! The Genetic Opera. My information about the film is very slim, but one of my favorite film critics highly recommended it as a twisted, entertaining, and highly creative piece of cinema. And just last night, the Clinton Street Theater had it for a one-night-only engagement, with director Darren Lynn Bousman and writer/actor Terrance Zdunich in attendance for a Q&A after the show.

Alas, I couldn’t make it work within my schedule, and the ticket cost more than I was willing to pay. I had to console myself with watching the latest Tim Burton movie instead. Given Burton’s track record lately, this was sort of like losing a dollar and finding a quarter. Actually, given that the Tim Burton movie in question was Dark Shadows, it was more like losing a dollar and finding a Canadian penny.

To start with, I should point out that I claim precisely zero knowledge of the original TV show. I have absolutely no idea if the film’s premise or execution adhere to the source material, so adjust your expectations accordingly.

Our story begins in 1760, when the wealthy and powerful Collins family travel abroad from Liverpool to establish their business in America. Over time, the Collins become so successful that the Maine town of Collinsport and the enormous family mansion of Collinwood are both built on the foundation of the Collins’ fishing business. Unfortunately, the Collins have a maid in their employ who just happens to be a witch.

Angelique (Eva Green) falls in love with Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), who refuses her advances and instead falls in love with the beautiful Josette. Thus spurned, Angelique casts a spell that kills off Barnabas’ parents, drives Josette to suicide, and turns Barnabas into a vampire. For extra measure, she buries Barnabas in a giant metal coffin so he can stew alone in his own agony for all eternity.

Flash forward to 1972, when a construction crew accidentally frees Barnabas. In the intervening centuries, the Collins business, manor, and family have fallen into severe disrepair. This is due not only to the incompetence of Barnabas’ distant relations, but also because Angelique has been slowly and painfully driving the Collinses out of business for the past 200 years. So naturally, Barnabas takes it upon himself to restore his family to its former glory, settling his feud with Angelique in the process.

Now, because this is a Tim Burton movie, there are certain things that should be obvious going in. It should come as no surprise that Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter are involved, and it should come as no surprise that Danny Elfman is composing the score (and he does a very good job here, by the way). By that same token, it should come as no surprise that the visuals in this movie are extraordinary. The cinematography, set design, costume design, and special effects are all of Burton’s usual sterling caliber. The mansion itself was particularly impressive, with a nicely gothic look and intricate hidden passageways worthy of any haunted house. The film also had a neat “aquatic wildlife” sort of motif that meshed nicely with the Collins’ fishing business. Oh, and the climax had some neat visual flourishes that I found to be quite creative.

Of course, where the visuals truly fail is in the makeup, though that isn’t quite as bad this time. The only characters in this film who look overly pale are Barnabas and Angelique, and they’re both actual demons. But even as I type these words, I remember that godawful fiery red wig on Helena Bonham-Carter and I just want to ask “Why?!”

So, yeah. The visuals are pretty much exactly what you’d expect from Tim Burton. Even if the results are tired and predictable, they’re still carefully crafted and often pretty to look at. But then there’s the screenplay. Where oh where do I begin with the screenplay?

First of all, the film puts a very heavy emphasis on its humor. This is unfortunate, because the humor is terrible. The hippie jokes don’t work, the double-entendres about balls are incredibly forced, the joke about McDonald’s stops just shy of going anywhere funny, and Barnabas’ “fish out of water” shtick got really old really fast. That said, I will give the film some credit for keeping the premise in 1972 instead of the 21st century, which at least gives some kind of unique flavor to Barnabas’ “comedic” struggles in adapting to modern life. I’ll also grant that there are a couple of jokes that work — the makeout scene between Angelique and Barnabas is surprisingly effective — but there are at least five failed attempts at humor for every individual attempt that works.

Far more importantly, the narrative is a total mess. There are plot holes. There are improbabilities. There are deus ex machinas. There are useless and/or unfinished story threads. There are characters incapable of seeing, hearing, feeling, or intuiting things that are plainly right in front of them. Hell, most of the Collins’ rise back to prominence is shown by way of a montage at the halfway point. Considering that this was supposed to be the subject of the film, this is inexcusable.

Even worse, there are so many characters in this film who are totally and completely worthless. Take Helena Bonham-Carter, for example. She plays Dr. Julia Hoffman, the Collins’ live-in psychiatrist. Take her out of the film and nothing would be lost except for a sequel tease that doesn’t make any lick of sense. There’s also Jonny Lee Miller, here playing Roger Collins. The guy establishes himself as a total dick who accomplishes precisely nada. He does nothing to help or hinder the Collins’ progress, and he isn’t even given the kind of satisfying comeuppance due to douchebags in film.

Then we have Jackie Earle Haley and Chloe Grace Moretz, two actors very near and dear to my heart. They are the reason why I wanted to see this film, as I couldn’t wait to see what they would do in collaboration with Tim Burton. Sadly, it doesn’t amount to much.

To be fair, Haley is at least somewhat memorable as groundskeeper Willie Loomis. He seems to be comfortable playing a snarky salt-of-the-earth drunkard, and Willie does actually affect the plot in his own small ways. He even gets a couple of good lines here and there. But in general, Haley’s talents were still totally wasted in the role.

The same could be said of Moretz. She’s stuck playing Carolyn Stoddard, the surly teenaged daughter of the cast. It’s obvious that Moretz is putting everything she has into the role, but the script gave her nothing to work with. There’s simply no avoiding the fact that no one likes the annoying and self-centered pubescent character in any movie or TV show. It also doesn’t help that Carolyn is another character who doesn’t affect the plot in any way, shape, or form. She does get a twist in the climax that might have been interesting, except that its execution made absolutely zero sense and succeeded in doing fuck-all.

I should also mention Christopher Lee, who pokes his head in for a one-scene cameo that would have done just as much good on the cutting room floor. I’ll remind you that this comes right after Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, in which Lee’s character contributed two lines of dialogue before getting his tongue cut out. Someone needs to tell Tim Burton that he needs to get more out of his Christopher Lee. This is not a good use of your Christopher Lee. For God’s sake, Alice Cooper gets a better cameo in this movie.

The standout in the supporting cast is easily Victoria Winters, who joins the Collinwood staff as a nanny for young David Collins (the less said about him, the better) at the start of the film. We learn about the Collinses through her, and Victoria is surprisingly effective at playing this everywoman sort of role. She even gets some legitimately good lines at the start of the film. Then again, one of the first things we learn about her is that “Victoria” isn’t her real name, so there’s a nice bit of mystery to keep the character interesting.

Also, Victoria and Josette (Barnabas’ former lover, remember) are both played by Bella Heathcote. Why do the characters look alike? How are they connected? Your guess is as good as mine.

I have absolutely no idea who Bella Heathcote is, but I like her. She has that kind of china-doll look which meshes perfectly with Burton’s sensibilities, though it’s very attractive nonetheless. She also has a good deal of charm and she acts surprisingly well off of Depp. Her career is apparently just starting to take off and I look forward to seeing more of her.

All of that aside, the stars of this movie are unquestionably Johnny Depp, Eva Green, and Michelle Pfeiffer. Surprisingly, the standout is easily Eva Green in the villainous role of Angelique (Side note: This is the third time she’s played a witch by my count, after The Golden Compass and “Camelot.”). She’s as guilty of chewing scenery as anyone else in the cast, but Green makes it work. A character obsessed with seducing our protagonist, plus an over-the-top performance, equals a total bitch who plays up her ample sex appeal to a comical degree. And of course, there’s something inherently fun about a legitimately threatening villain who’s played with exaggerated glee. Best of all, Green has a beautiful shit-eating grin that could cut glass.

Depp is of course the star and it’s obvious that he’s having a great time. Even if the “fish out of water” humor doesn’t work, it still depends on Barnabas maintaining a constant air of dignity as he unknowingly makes an ass of himself, which is something that Depp seems perfectly game to do. The problem is that Depp didn’t really make an effort at blending into his character. Or if he did, he didn’t succeed. Depp’s performance in this film was so completely over-the-top that I could never bring myself to see Barnabas as a character in himself. I could only see Johnny Depp making an ass of himself while wearing too much makeup, that’s it.

Then there’s Michelle Pfeiffer, reuniting with Tim Burton to play Elizabeth Collins Stoddard. She’s… okay. Elizabeth is another stock character, namely the strong matriarch trying to hold the family together. This character is a strange paradox. She gets a ton of screen time, she plays a huge part in the narrative, and Pfeiffer turns in a perfectly serviceable performance… and yet I don’t remember a thing about her. There’s essentially nothing about the character beyond the aforementioned archetype.

All told, I just couldn’t get a feel for Dark Shadows. The actors are all chewing scenery like its sell-by date is only two days away, yet the film seems determined to take its premise and its world seriously. This doesn’t feel like the “silly situations played straight” approach pioneered by Mel Brooks and Airplane!, and it sure as hell doesn’t feel like an ideal blend between humor and drama. It just feels like a mess. Then again, it doesn’t help that so many characters were totally worthless, the narrative was a big lump of half-baked laziness, and most of the jokes weren’t actually funny.

Skip this one and go rewatch The Avengers.

One Comment

  1. Comment by Padraig:

    Well, that’s disappointing.

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