Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Dark Shadows Movie Review

I’ll say off the bat that I was primed to severely dislike Dark Shadows, Tim Burton’s updating of the 1960s daytime soap opera about a gothic manor in Maine with strange supernatural occurrences. I have been less than enthusiastic – to put it diplomatically – about most of Burton’s work in the last ten years. When I think back on his career as a director, what I’ve enjoyed most are his films that are straight comedies. He has a real knack for the bizarrely funny and whimsically macabre. I think of Beetlejuice, Mars Attacks!, and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure as his most enjoyable features. Recent films like Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Alice in Wonderland have been simply odd, overblown and bloated. Then there was the matter of the advertising for Dark Shadows, which I thought made it look like a 1970s kitsch piece featuring yet another in a long and increasingly exhaustive series of offbeat Johnny Depp performances (his eighth in collaboration with Burton). Imagine my immense surprise to find a lighthearted homage to a TV series that Burton and Depp both claim to have loved as children.

The original soap was a period piece set in the late 18th century. Burton’s version, from a story by Seth Grahame-Smith and John August and screenplay by Grahame-Smith, begins in the same period with the young Barnabas Collins moving from Liverpool to Maine, where his family builds a town and mansion on a hill from their riches obtained through the fishing industry. As an adult, Barnabas (Depp) dallies with Angelique (Eva Green), his family’s maid, but falls in love with Josette (Bella Heathcote). The scorned and lovelorn Angelique, who happens also to be a witch, curses Josette to jump off the bluff to her demise and condemns Barnabas to life as a vampire. Soon after, the townspeople bury him alive in the forest. 200 years later he is unearthed and returns to Collinsport to find distant relatives still residing in his family home.

The people he finds there are completely dysfunctional, but hey, blood is blood. And Barnabas makes a solemn vow to current matriarch Elizabeth Collins (Michelle Pfeiffer) that, despite his – ahem – condition, no harm will befall anyone living under their roof. That includes Elizabeth’s teenage daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz) going through a little more than the typical growing pains of being 15 years old in a family of oddballs; Elizabeth’s brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller) and his son David; a psychiatrist (Helena Bonham Carter) hired to help the children; and a recently hired governess named Victoria Winters (also played by Heathcote).

In the two centuries he’s lain dormant, Angelique has taken over most of the Collinsport fishing industry and obviously still holds a grudge. There is sizzling tension between her and Barnabas and they have several exciting scenes together with banter of words and the occasional physical dalliance. It’s all in the spirit of fun and it comes across the screen near perfectly. It works in part because the actors play the whole thing straight. No one is obviously going for laughs, although the film is funny. I was surprised to find myself chortling quite a bit, in fact. I just wish Burton would continue to stick to this style of execution for his material. He has a great handle on darker subject matter, and when he applies his brand of humor I’m completely hooked.

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