Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, July 7, 2014

Director Report Card: Tim Burton (2012) Part 1

15. Dark Shadows

Starting his career as a teen heartthrob, over the years Johnny Depp made the slow transition to quirky leading man. With the major box office success of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, Depp became a genuine movie star and studio draw. Using his new found box office clout, Depp went about getting several dream projects made. He wanted to play his childhood heroes before he became too old to do so. Thus, Depp as Tonto in “The Lone Ranger,” Depp as Kolchak in the upcoming “Night Stalker” feature, and Depp as Barnabas Collins in “Dark Shadows.” Tim Burton agreed to direct seemingly as a favor to his friend. When it was announced that Burton and Depp were adapting the kooky and cheesy, and cultishly beloved, supernatural soap opera, myself and many others were expecting a serious horror film. Then that disastrous first trailer hit and it became clear that “Dark Shadows” was not that kind of movie.

Inspired by the series’ most popular storyline, the film has Barnabas Collins, a vampire, being awoken in the 1970s. Cursed to live as a vampire after spurning the advances of a witch, Barnabas has spent the last two-hundred years locked in a coffin. He finds that same witch has taken over the fishing industry that was originally dominated by Barnabas’ family. So now the vampire has several difficulties to overcome. He has to rebuilt the respectability of the Collins family, battle the still living witch, adapt to the seventies, control his vampiric desires, and earn the love of the reincarnation of his lost fiancĂ©.

The biggest problem with “Dark Shadows” is that it can’t decide upon a tone. The exposition-filled opening is solemn, in keeping with the original soap. Barnabas talks about how he became a vampire and earned the scorn of Angelique. Next, we jump ahead to 1972, when new nanny Victoria arrives in Collinsport and quickly accepts the strange family (and ghosts) that lives there. Upon being dug up, however, “Dark Shadows” becomes a wacky, fish-out-of-water comedy. The vampire is baffled by a McDonalds sign, cars, asphalt roads, and the modern amenities of the day. His vampire powers are frequently played for laughs, such as when he and Angelique destroy a room in the throes of love-making. Even then, “Dark Shadows” can’t decide on a tone. The rivalry between Barnabas and Angelique mostly plays like the kind of big genre spectacle Warners Bros. was probably expecting when they gave the flick a green-light. The two toss each other around in the fashion of a modern superhero blockbuster. “Dark Shadows” attempts to be all these things and succeeds at none of them.

The movie can’t even decide on what type of comedy it wants to be. The movie is full of broad gags. Barnabas is confounded by television and thinks that Alice Cooper is an especially ugly woman. During one montage, we see a bunch of goofy vampire related sight gags. Barnabas brushes his two fangs without being to see his reflection, sleeps either in a big shipping box, hanging from a curtain, or curled up in a wardrobe. His head thumps on an electric synthesizer, the music playing throughout the scene. During one especially groan-worthy moment, he recites Steve Miller lyrics. And yet other bits of comedy are in a darker vein. After attempting to befriend a group of hippies, Barnabus kills all of them. More then a few times, he says deeply un-P.C. things about the social issues of the day. Perhaps if the movie had focused on one type of humor over the other, it would have been more consistently funny. As it is now, the movie never generates laughs.

There’s also the problem of Barnabas as your central character. He is, at best, an ineffectual anti-hero. Upon bursting onto the scene, he kills ten innocent people. Despite being the hero of the film, he ranks up a surprisingly high body count. And none of those folks deserved to die. For reasons the script never backs up, the movie tries to play him as a sexual dynamo that is irresistible to women. Over the run time, four different women throw themselves at him. The most inexplicable of these is Helena Bonham Carter’s Dr. Hoffman, who goes down on him after one measly flattering comment. Upon discovering that the doctor is trying to turn herself into a vampire, Barnabas kills her too in probably the most graphic blood-sucking of the film. The ending tries to sell Barnabas as a romantic hero, having defeated the witch and regain the love of his (after)life. Yet a lame sequel hook shows Dr. Hoffman springing back to life under the sea. Not only is Barnabas a remorseless murderer, he’s not even good at covering his tracks.

Since the movie is based on a soap, it has the problem of having to toss in several competing story lines. The movie is about Barnabas and Angelique’s rivalry. Except for when its about Barnabas and the modern Collins family learning to live together. A plot detail that is frequently lost in the shuffle, and probably should have been focused on more, is Barnabas’ romance with Victoria. They have only four scenes together, I think. There’s little chemistry between Johnny Depp and Bella Heathcote. Even then, there’s other story lines competing for screen time. What about orphan David, who interacts with his mother’s ghost? What about his philandering father, who awkwardly disappears halfway through the film? And here’s Chloe Moretz as a rebellious teenager who is also a werewolf, we find out at the last minute. There’s just a little too much going on in “Dark Shadows.”

For all its tonal back-and-forth, the action packed finale is one of the more innovative things about “Dark Shadows.” Eva Green’s skin begins to crack like a china doll when injured. The final showdown takes place in the middle of the Collins mansion. Using her powers, Angelique makes the paintings on the wall bleed. The wooden statues spring to life, grabbing at the family. Dramatically, flames bursts over the stair. My favorite bit is when the staircase banister leaps to life as a snake. “Dark Shadows” fizzles out afterwards but for those brief moments, it’s actually exciting.

Considering the movie is more-or-less his vanity project, you’d think Johnny Depp would give a better performance. It seems like Depp can’t get a bead on the character either. Barnabas is played as a comedic straight man, reacting cluelessly to the events around him. Except for when he’s a foppish dandy, strutting about like the 1700s never ended. The comedy is tone-deaf but Depp seems more comfortable with it. Whenever Barnabas has to be a romantic lead or an action hero, Depp is more uncertain. The lack of chemistry with his love interest and his lack of heroic conviction make both roles an awkward fit for Depp’s Barnabas.

Slightly better is Eva Green as Angelique. One of the problems with Depp’s character arc is that you have to believe that he doesn’t want to sleep with Eva Green. When she’s looking as spectacular as she does in this film, that’s a hard pill to swallow. It’s not just that she looks great. Green packs the role full of fantastically entertaining villainous intent. She also makes sure Angelique’s motivations are more complex then simple villainy. There’s some tragedy in her as she destroys herself for a man that doesn’t love her. It’s not unfair to say the movie probably would have been interesting if it was about her.

Burton continues to be good about filling his supporting casts with strong actors, even if the scripts aren’t up to the same quality. Burton hasn’t worked with Michelle Pfeiffer since “Batman Returns.” She isn’t around enough in general. Her role here mostly limits her to shouting sternly about the state of the family business. There’s little comedic bite around her attempts to keep Depp in line. But at least she looks pretty bad ass carrying a shotgun. The rest of the Collins family are similarly problematic. Chloe Moretz slinks around in mini-skirts, which I’m sure her creepy internet fan base loved. She brings some okay attitude to the role but doesn’t expand beyond “snarky teenager” very much. Her late film werewolf transformation is fairly embarrassing, though even an actress as strong as Chloe can’t make those ridiculous one-liners work.

Also embarrassing is Helena Bonham Carter as Dr. Hoffman, who is boozy and floozy without much substance at all. Johnny Lee Miller is similarly thin as the bitchy Roger Collins. Jackie Earle Haley provides some laughs as Willie Loomis. Bella Heathcote sleepwalks through her duel role as Victoria and Josette. Christopher Lee and Alice Cooper stop by for cameos even if their bit parts aren’t particularly memorable.

For a film set primarily at a spooky, old gothic mansion, you’d expect more of Tim Burton’s style to show up. Not really. I suppose Barnabas could be considered a typical Burton-style outsider, even if he’s not very sympathetic. There are no black and white spirals or slanty Caligari sets in sight. The set design is still gorgeous though. I especially love the elaborate secret passageway that includes a suite of howling wolves and a moving fireplace. The central atrium, with its spooky paintings of dead ancestors, feels very much like the original series if it had money. Danny Elfman’s score is appropriately gothic and includes some retro John Carpenter style synth to fit the era. For the most part though, “Dark Shadows” might as well be directed as Bret Ratner.

“Dark Shadows” was a substantial bomb though not quite on the same level as Depp’s other vanity project the next year. Considering the public's continued interest in supernatural romance, that should tell you how bad those trailers were. The saddest thing about “Dark Shadows” is that, even if it had cleaned up its muddled screenplay and had a more likable protagonists, it probably still wouldn't have been very good. [Grade: C]

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