Dark Shadows, 2012.
Directed by Tim Burton.
Starring Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Jackie Earle Haley, Jonny Lee Miller, Chloë Grace Moretz and Bella Heathcote.
After being imprisoned for two centuries, a vampire finds himself set free in 1972 and discovers that his dysfunctional descendants have allowed his ancestral home to fall to ruin.
Tim Burton has been telling the same story his whole career. If you’re aware of this scruffy haired man with the blue glasses and the cackling villain beard at all, you must be quite aware of that by now. It’s a simple, mostly effective formula: a pale, quirky lead character (usually Johnny “Cheekbones” Depp) tries to adjust to modern life, fails, then learns to love being a gothic freak. Give or take a Planet of the Apes, we’re usually right behind him.
Now here comes Dark Shadows, where a vampire wakes up in the 70s and wreaks havoc of all sorts trying to get his life back on track. Very, very familiar ground for Burton. Alright, stuck record corrected, on with the synopsis, people. It’s the 1770s, in Maine, New England. Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp, who else?) came over from Liverpool with his comfortably wealthy family. Everything’s going great for them; they have a mansion and a port and a fishing trade to their name. Even better, the streets don’t smell of urine. Huz-zah.
Then Collins starts a risky romance with Angelique (Eva Green); she gets a bit grabby-grabby possessive, so he backs off and falls in love with the charmingly quiet Josette (Bella Heathcote) instead. What’s Angelique supposed to do now? Oh wait, she’s a witch. She can do lots of things.
In the space of a few short weeks, Barnabas’ parents are accidentally fatally crushed under a gargoyle, Josette plummets to a watery grave, and Barnabas himself gets the old ‘pow, you’re a vampire’ curse from that crazy ex of his. No sooner than Angelique has finished destroying his life, she sets about making his death a living hell. With a little help from her angry mob, she has him bolted and chained in a coffin and buried alive.
1972. The Collins name endures. A young woman, Victoria (also Bella Heathcote) finds herself drawn to Collinwood, ostensibly as a governess for little David Collins (Gulliver McGrath). Also lurking in this dust-trap of a mansion are his deadbeat father Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), his elusive Aunt Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), his moody teenage step-sister Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz), grouchy caretaker Willie (Jackie Earle Haley) and Collinwood’s very own resident drunk psychiatrist, Dr Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter).
Sadly, despite a nicely mysterious ‘Nights in White Satin’ introduction and a ghost for a best friend, Victoria is pretty much saddled with the same functionary role Agent Myers had in Hellboy. She allows Burton to present each family member to us through the eyes of a stranger, and by the time she’s done that, Barnabas’ coffin has been unearthed by a bulldozer. Now, like the rest of the family we just spent so much time getting to know, she’s sidelined.
They’re sidelined because it’s not their story. It’s about Barnabas and Angelique, who is also apparently not dead. She does have an odd, porcelain-like veneer to her complexion; a nice match for her spindly, emaciated object of obsession. So let’s talk about them. The performances are spot on; like David Bowie’s alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth, Depp plays Barnabas as a stiff, unearthly creature, as fascinated as he is confounded by modern life.
Eva Green leaps, bounds and does a great many somersaults at the chance to play somebody as domineering and uninhibited as Angelique. Where Barnabas is muddled and misdirected every which way by television and teenagers and Alice Cooper, Angelique is cool and methodical, driven by one desire and one alone – to possess Barnabas Collins, heart and soul. Green’s eyes dance with hidden flame, as she baits and taunts Depp with every syllable that passes between them. It all leads up to probably the weirdest sex scene since two puppets going at it hammer and tongs in Team America.
With that out of his system, Barnabas plainly tells Angelique he wants nothing more to do with her. Alas, Fatal Attraction does not yet exist to warn him why that tactic doesn’t work. He has a lot to learn about relationships, and he’s not going to absorb that sort of information by eating hippies or hypnotising Christopher Lee.
Taken in from a distance, Barnabas’ whole method of solving problems is very impulsive. After two hundred years in a coffin he seems anxious to be rushing off everywhere, impatient to restore his family’s name, court Victoria, change himself back into a human being and solve all the Collins’ personal hang-ups.
Writers Seth Grahame-Smith and John August seem loathe to delegate any subplots to the family members, being somewhat overconfident of Depp’s ability to command the screen at all times and in all situations. Dammit yes, of course Depp can spin all those plates at once, but with such a marvelous potential rogues’ gallery of Collinses to draw from, it just seems like an acute case of tunnel-vision to focus almost exclusively on one character for over two hours. Even if he is obsessed with women having adequate ‘birthing hips’.
Quibbles and pedantry aside, this is actually worth watching. That Depp / Green screen chemistry burns bright and fierce; it’s the driving force of Dark Shadows, backed up by Bruno Delbonnel’s stunning cinematography. Autumnal New England hasn’t looked nearly so crisp and richly textured since Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon rampaged across it in stolen cars as Harold and Maude in ‘71.
Of course we expected a better story from the man who first defined Batman as a cinematic force to be reckoned with. Dark Shadows doesn’t live up to the potential it so clearly possesses, and that’s a little disappointing. Take Dark Shadows on its own merits, though, and you might enjoy it. It’s a fun and feisty vampiric romantic comedy that doesn’t need to resort to gross-out jokes or excruciating farce to coax a laugh out of us. Burton is much more interested in the mind games; the grim and awkward realities of a fairly decent man trying to come to terms with being a walking, talking, hippie-eating, two-hundred-year-old corpse. By the way, did I mention Alice Cooper is also in this? Alice Cooper is in this.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.