Friday, May 11, 2012

Dark Shadows

Camp, Goth, Androgyny: Burton & Depp Finally Have Fun

Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins and Eva Green as Angelique Bouchard in Tim Burton's comedy-horror "Dark Shadows". 
Peter Mountain/Warner Brothers


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, May 11, 2012

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp collaborate yet again; this time they architect a big screen edition of Dan Curtis's television horror series "Dark Shadows", a cult hit episodic drama that ran for six years beginning in 1966 on American television.  The film opened in the U.S. and Canada today, and it is entertaining if not fluid cinema.

"Dark Shadows", a spectacle of Goth and androgyny (in Mr. Depp's Barnabas Collins) begins in the 1700s in Liverpool, England, and the Collins family and young son Barnabas journeying to America.  An older Barnabas is cursed by the evil Angelique (a playful, wickedly engaging Eva Green), making him a vampire after he spurns her for his true love Josette DuPres (Bella Heathcote).  Barnabas is buried alive and when he's accidentally set free he finds himself in 1972 at Collinsport, an East Coast town controlled by his kooky relatives, who may be stranger and more eccentric than he.

Unlike past joint ventures -- those usually self-conscious, brooding, lugubrious fantasy-tragedies ("Edward Scissorhands", "Sleepy Hollow", "Sweeney Todd") -- Mr. Burton, whose films are always marked by incredibly detailed production design (here it's Rich Heinrichs' great design work that stands out), this time goes against his own grain, opting for glam and camp, the opposite of Mr. Curtis's drama series, to make "Dark Shadows" lots of fun.

At times Mr. Burton's film feels like it is in standstill, awkward on occasion, a touch stilted and without fluidity.  Yet the triumph of "Dark Shadows" is that it is able to breathe, laugh at itself but mostly sees Mr. Burton and Mr. Depp parodying their more self-serious films, and here they are near the top of their creative endeavors.  Even better is that the actors in general are having lots of fun and do well to amuse and keep the audience laughing, even when there isn't anything especially dynamic going on.

Michelle Pfeiffer, once one of "The Witches Of Eastwick" and in "What Lies Beneath", marks another rare appearance on the big screen (after last December's calamitous "New Year's Eve") as modern Collins matriarch, the mysterious Elizabeth Collins Stoddard.  (There's an anachronism of "Scarface" referencing in a scene with Ms. Pfeiffer walking down a staircase with a firearm and a chandelier not far behind.)  In one scene we're unsure of Elizabeth's allegiance or trust of her long-lost relative.  Curiously, neither Mr. Burton nor screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith follow through with her distrust nor make any further reference to it. 

Not unsurprisingly the film doesn't specialize in coherence on a narrative scale as much as it does confusion, uncertainty and disorientation hence its title: "Dark Shadows".  There are deliberate gray areas here, notably in Barnabas, who is in a time warp and often feels frozen by time.  After all, he's numb, and dead.  Mr. Burton's film operates on that same level but it's a conscious numbness: a cheeky, comedic, self-aware deep freeze.  Full of expiration and emptiness, "Dark Shadows" is about time standing still for its lead character even as life spins on for everyone else.

For all its comedy -- Jackie Earle Haley and Mr. Burton's missus Helena Bonham Carter are terrific here -- "Dark Shadows" does not completely forsake its television origins, mixing horror into the proceedings vigorously.  Barnabas may be an appealing figure, an object from the past projected on to the randy free lovers of the late 1960s and early 1970s but he knows when to take a bite out of a situation.  There's some wham bam slam sex, an invigorating throttle of lovemaking that can only be described as the kind of angry sex most living humans wouldn't be comfortable having. 

[An aside: I wonder what might have been had Mr. Burton set "Dark Shadows" at the time of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" just a few years later.  It may have been a remarkable and rather interesting film.]

A grateful dead man alive and perhaps not so well, Barnabas, around 200 years later in the Seventies to protect his newfound relatives from the vengeful Angelique, gets lost in the future and bumbles the Carpenters (whose excellent, cheery song "Top Of The World" from 1972) is well placed here (while the great Moody Blues track "Nights In White Satin" is less so.)  Barnabas is bewildered by Goth metal rocker Alice Cooper, calling him "the ugliest woman he's ever seen."  The music choices here are astute at all times, connoting a heaven-or-hell existence that fits Barnabas to a tee.  The songs mentioned in this paragraph reflect this perfectly, and in Karen Carpenter's case, being on top of the world would presumably mean being in heaven. 

The savvy of Mr. Burton's film is dependent to an extent on the audience's knowledge of the time period, and yet the moviegoer who knows that Ms. Carpenter passed away in 1983 has a great deal more information than Barnabas does, adding further to the fun at seeing such a doomed yet comedic figure poke around in the dark culturally and morally blindfolded.

What makes "Dark Shadows" appealing is time and distance.  The film has fun with its awkwardness and by extension the characters' own unease.  The Collins family aren't at home in their own skins even in their own time, with an adolescent daughter (Chloe Grace Moretz) giving her mother Elizabeth and wayward father (Jonny Lee Miller) all they can handle.  Ms. Moretz is one of the film's weak points but because Ms. Green's work and Mr. Depp's deadpan comedy and horror bits are solid any weaknesses elsewhere fail to override the film at large. 

Mr. Burton gives time travel a lighthearted approach, and the audience itself, four decades removed from the 1970s, is more or less where Barnabas is -- being out of their own time element -- and in a way they identify with him if not with his existence.  The director and Mr. Depp have successfully bridged the gap between their aforementioned collaborations and their frisky, idiosyncratic (and creepier) ones -- "Corpse Bride", "Charlie And The Chocolate Factory", "Alice In Wonderland"-- to make a film that is curious, clever and unceasingly enjoyable.  Finally these two fine talents exhale and have fun.

With: Gully McGrath, Ray Shirley, Christopher Lee, Alice Cooper.

"Dark Shadows" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking.  The film's running time is one hour and 53 minutes.

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