Friday, May 11, 2012

My big fat Dark Shadows review (spoilers ahead)

At the end of Dark Shadows, the witch Angelique is revealed to be nothing more than a hollow, damaged porcelain doll, a contraption that appears to be vaguely lifelike only if you don't look too closely. Angelique represents the failed aesthetics of this summer blockbuster better than its hero ever does: underwritten, overacted and almost entirely beside the point.

There's an amazing amount of talent represented on the screen, and not just in the cast. Dark Shadows is visually gorgeous, the music is powerful and, for the first time ever, Collinsport actually feels like a real town. Everything looks right, but the film's aggressively stupid script means the final product never rises above the level of conceptual pageantry.

And almost everything wrong with this movie has to do with its script by Seth Grahame-Smith, which wants to be everything to everyone as long as it doesn't take too much work. Entire characters could be edited from the film without altering the story to any noticeable degree. Roger Collins and Dr. Hoffman pass through the film without contributing anything to the cause, while the Collins children are asked to do nothing more than twiddle their thumbs until called upon to participate in the deus ex machina ending. There's so little going on in this movie that Alice Cooper has time to hang around to perform two songs.

The movie even begins with a juicy piece of editorial fat that could easily have been trimmed in writing. The opening "flashback" sequence is certainly attractive, but it serves no other purpose than to show us how Barnabas becomes a vampire and set up the film's romantic dynamic. Except that it really doesn't do that, either. Barnabas and Josette meet and fall in love between scenes, and Barnabas finds out he's a vampire about 30 seconds before being entombed by an angry mob for misdeeds we never get to witness. We are repeatedly told that Barnabas and Josette are OMG SO MUCH IN LOVE but are never given even one scene to make us believe in their romance. The movie cheats in the worst possible way by telling us what we should be feeling, instead of actually making us feel it. It's like a comedian telling us "I've got this joke about two guys and a talking duck, it's hilarious!" and then never sharing the joke.

I'll give credit to director Tim Burton for taking a gamble on this film, because it looks like nothing else you're going to see at the theater this summer. When Burton decided to become a director back in the '80s, the world didn't gain a great director as much as it lost an amazing production designer. Going as far back as Beetlejuice, Burton has had a long-standing problem with telling good scripts from bad. He's usually only as good as his script, and the script for Dark Shadows is terrible.

Beetlejuice was able to rise above its middling script problems, though, because it was funny (and having Michael Keaton as a secret weapon didn't hurt.) Very little humor in Dark Shadows works, and what does only works because of the actors selling it. Johnny Depp is surprisingly good in the role of Barnabas Collins, but he's especially good in the moment's quieter scenes. Barnabas is oblivious to his own obliviousness, which comes across as sad and funny in all the right ways when he's allowed to interact with the cast as something other than a running gag. Someone should tell screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith that "fish out of water" is only a character trait and not something on which you hang the framework of an entire movie.

The rest of the cast is hit-and-miss, undermined by the one-two punch of sketchy writing and ambivalent direction. A lot of the acting in this film is archly stilted, as though the actors are misguidedly trying to pay homage to a program they've never seen. Michelle Pfeiffer seems to be channeling Soap Acting 101 without ever sounding like anyone from the original Dark Shadows TV show. And Eva Green is miscast but endlessly energetic, so I find myself wanting to forgive her.

Ultimately, Dark Shadows feels quaint and oddly dated. Not because of its 1972 period setting, but because of its passive aggressive handling of a licensed property. When Burton came onto the scene in the late '80s, movies did whatever they wanted when adapting books, comics, TV shows, etc. An idea entered the "dream factory" and came out the other side looking like something very different. During the last decade, that attitude has gradually changed, with producers recognizing that the writers and artists who spent 40 years working on something like Captain America might be worth consulting for the film adaption. Burton's Dark Shadows seems like a throwback to the days when Hollywood looked at outside ideas like properties to be hostilely acquired. If you didn't completely remake the concept, then you ran the risk of having to share credit with whoever actually created it.

But you also need to leave yourself a little wiggle room, so that if the project goes tits up you still have the option of blaming the original property. If Dark Shadows fails at the box office, it will be interesting to see if Burton takes the heat, or if he passes the buck.


Anonymous said...

I'm genuinely glad that a devoted Dark Shadows fan wrote an honest review of this movie. I'm still going to see it on Sunday out of loyalty to the tribe and I have a feeling I'll end up agreeing with you on many if not all of these points, but it will at least be fun to see Barnabas Collins re-imagined by Johnny Depp. Hopefully. Fingers crossed.

Erica said...

I cried when I left the theater. That should pretty much say it all.

Cousin Barnabas said...

The movie made me feel almost nothing, which is almost as bad.

Shani said...

I felt there were so many times when they could have used things straight from the show. Why not have Mrs. Johnson make one of her infamous boiled dinners? Willy now cooks? It was like a little betrayal. Case in point *****spoiler alert****** David's mother, Laura. What she was in the show and what was happening in the house at the moment she showed up. Why not go with what she was originally, a phoenix and work that in somehow? I thought they were setting that up the whole time with David saying she was going to come back.

I just have so many feelings. But I am glad I found this blog! Thank you

Cousin Barnabas said...

Thanks for your comments! I don't want this site to turn into a place where the editor (that's me) always has the last word. My review represents nothing more or less than my opinion, and I'm not waging a campaign against the film. Whether you loved the movie or hated it, feel free to comment anywhere on this site that you choose. If I don't respond to your message personally, it's because I'm trying not to be a jackass.

So, welcome to The Collinsport Historical Site. Please make yourselves at home!

Anonymous said...

I agree that the script was weak. But you what I really missed? Bob Cobert's music. When you hear that little piece from "The Secret Room" at the beginning of the film, that IS "Dark Shadows." If they had reorchestrated his work instead of using another forgettable Danny Elfman score, that could have papered over a lot of the flaws in the script. It would have been a beautiful-looking film with that unforgettable music.

Anonymous said...

From one loyal Dark Shadows fan to others..The movie was great!

Sandi McBride said...

my heart has been staked..damn script and all who approved it's use to try to silence Barnabus forever!!!

David said...

What a great review. Spot on. The first third of the movie was promising, despite the fat in the prologue. I thought the train ride to Collinwood to the Moody Blues was inspired. Johnny Depp was amazing throughout. His relationship with David (the boy was fantastic) was touching. I even liked Michelle as Elizabeth. The union she forged with Barnabas was great and believable. But the script SUCKED. As soon as Angelique entered the picture the story took a severe nosedive from "witch" it never recovered. Lazy, unfunny, illogical writing. What a baaaaad script. Hoffman giving Barnabas a blowjob? Really? The mash-up at the end was laughable. The movie is going to tank. And Burton's lack of directing talent (and his inability to understand/respect good writing) are responsible. He is an interesting artist -- a unique production designer. But he is also a commercial sell-out -- a hack. Too bad. A great opportunity squandered.

Anonymous said...

The worst thing this film did was to ruin the chance of an entire generation taking "DS" seriously.
"House of DS" and the 1991 remake proved that becoming even more serious and realistic was the
only direction to take.
I'm SICK of Johnny Depp's comedic take on everything...and I feel the same about Burton.
They really need to grow-up...they're both pushing 50, for God's sake!
Women find Depp sexy...but his "Barnabas" is probably the most UNSEXY vampire since "Nosferatu"!
And the absolutely pathetic script by Graham whoever, was boring, unfunny, unscary, unsexy and unintelligent.
And flopped in the US, but did well throughout Europe, making it the most successful vampire movie ever made!
Now the world knows the name "DARK SHADOWS"...!
It's that stupid, boring comedy with Johnny Depp.

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