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Dark Shadows (Frank's take)

1/06/2012. Contributed by Frank Ochieng

Buy Dark Shadows in the USA - or Buy Dark Shadows in the UK

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The Tim Burton-Johnny Depp celluloid collaboration has been a reliable train chugging along the creative tracks throughout the years. The derailment in 2012: the callow costume creepfest Dark Shadows. Burton has always been a peculiar bird with bizarre creativity grounded in cutting edge imagination.

Burton’s go-to on-screen mouthpiece Depp never fails to take on an oddball characterisation and make it inventive and charismatically inviting.

As the cinematic tandem attempt to take on the classic gothic televised soap opera that captivated audiences from 1966 through 1971, the Burton-Depp off-kilter stamp cannot sink their frivolous fangs into the nostalgic pop culture vampire vehicle that resonated so well with TV audiences from yesteryear. Although the movie version of Dark Shadows has its share of weirdness, offbeat mystique, suggestive vibes and colorful allure in the beginning moments it botches its tone with a sketchy second half muddled in laboured special effects and atmospheric shifts of tongue-in-the-cheek thrills. In short, Dark Shadows is a disjointed juggling act that tries too hard to convey its strange irreverence.

Dark Shadows feels insanely overstuffed with too many characters that come and go. The fluctuating themes of energetic bounciness in campiness and caustic overtones are unconvincing and uneven. Burton tries to serve this popcorn production with a raucous pulse and wondrous wit but the schizophrenic screenplay by Seth Grahame- Smith splatters all over the place with the force of a plasma-filled vile crashing on the floor of a blood bank. Despite Depp’s signature turn as another strange soul engaged in impish saturation Dark Shadows registers as dizzy and dismal without much punch to entice the fans of the cultish television show or potential newcomers to the Shadows seekers via reruns.

Depp’s Barnabas Collins comes from a wealthy family whose primary business is invested in the fishing trade in Maine. Barnabas was a bit of a heartbreaker back in the 1700’s which resulted in dire consequences. A vindictive witch named Angelique (Eva Green)—a household servant—became retaliatory when her romantic heart was spurned by Barnabas as he fell in love with Josette (Bella Heathcote). Angelique cast a spell on Josette whose suicidal jump off a cliff causes Barnabas to consider killing himself. Angelique punishes Barnabas by turning him into a vampire and burying alive so that he could not reunite with his precious love Josette in death’s destination.

Nearly two hundred years later in the early 1970’s Barnabas Collins bursts free from his coffin and returns to his Maine estate at Collinswood Manor to discover his band of dippy descendents living there. Also, a woman named Victoria (Heathcote) whose strong likeness to a long departed Josette from two centuries ago just happens to coincidentally be heading to Collinswood Manor in an attempt to secure a job as a governess for a troubled boy. The obligatory “secret” about both Victoria and her young charge hovers over the storyline like some dark gray cloud.

We see how the privileged Collins clan had fallen on hard times. Matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) has difficulty dealing with her precocious teen daughter Carolyn (Chloe Moretz). Roger (Jonny Lee Miller) is a poor excuse for a father whose son David experiences ghostly encounters. Staying at the manse is booze-hound psychologist Dr. Hoffman (Helen Bonham Carter) assigned to oversee David’s mental state of mind. Groundskeeper Willie (Jackie Earle Haley) is a walking whack job among the cast of kooky characters.

So Barnabas definitely has his work cut out for him in trying to restore order to his scatterbrained relatives and boost up the family fortune. However, a repeated and intrusive tactic by Angelique (yes, she is still alive) will once again haunt Barnabas as she discovers his return to the scene. Angelique gives Barnabas the chance to redeem his affection for her but no dice. Hence, Barnabas’s attraction to Josette look-a-like Victoria will once again fuel the wrath for a vengeful Angelique to wreak havoc for the vulnerable vampire and his boisterous brood.

In Burton’s defense, he enthusiastically captures the essence of his film’s vitality from a visual perspective that is stylishly breathtaking. The art direction and costume designs are exquisite and imaginative. Plus, Burton’s embracing of a collection of upbeat and unusual characters is a consistent staple of his filmmaking pedigree. For all its decorative glory, Dark Shadows is an eye-opening landscape of pop art. After all, no one knows how to dress a film aesthetically brilliant as the eccentric Burton.

Yet with all the window-dressing, the gaudy Dark Shadows still lacks a solid story structure that resonates soundly. Sadly, it has trouble figuring out what it wants to be at heart. Is it a melodrama about a tragic love story gone wrong? Is it a dark comedy with an occasional cheeky satirical lining? Is it a horror show meant to teeter between hokey and haunting? Unfortunately, Dark Shadows has more mood swings than your middle-aged Aunt Bertha’s bout with PMS. The combination of seriousness and silliness brings about an “oil-and-water mixing” analogy. The complicated plot weaves in and out with the gravity of an impatient sewing needle.

There is no doubt how much fun the performers have in parading around this movie to the echoes of chewy insanity. Depp is predictably captivating as the bloodbath bandleader of the flashy festivities. Green has an equally devilish time walking in the shoes of the wicked witch Angelique. Burton/Depp movie-making cohort Bonham Carter decently fills the void as the binge-drinking household shrink. The entire cast marches to the beat of doing wacky and wayward things yet the script never establishes anything beyond that simplistic revelation of weirdos venting and vexing. What could have been a promising and interesting sordid triangle love story gets eventually lost in the shuffle of all the other loose ends of bubble gum goriness and goofiness.

It was a nice taste of nostalgia seeing the late great iconic Dark Shadows star Jonathan Frid (the original Barnabas Collins) make a cameo in the movie based on the same surrealistic serial that made the Canadian accomplished actor a household name over four decades ago. His last appearance in Burton’s aimless Halloween candy-coated big screen treatment of his 60’s TV series made us wonder if it was not too late for Frid to assume the cape one more time for old time’s sake.

Dark Shadows (Warner Bros.)
1 hr. 52 mins.
Starring: Johnny Depp, Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helen Bonham Carter, Bella Heathcote, Chloe Moretz, Gulliver McGrath, Jonny Lee Miller, Jackie Earle Haley
Directed by: Tim Burton
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre: Horror/Mystery & Suspense

Critic’s Rating: ** stars (out of 4 stars)

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