After coming home from watching Dark Shadows last night, I began thinking about my review. Still laughing and little dazed I tried to focus on some key points: style, plot, characters. The more I thought about it, the less I liked the film, for its cracks were starting to show. But then it got me thinking, should we take it so seriously?
The premise is quite simple: Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) broke Angelique Bouchard’s heart (Eva Green) by falling in love with Josette DuPres (Bella Heathcote). Angelique is a revengeful witch, so she curses Barnabas with immortality, turing him into a vampire and burying him in a coffin. Until 196 years later a group of workers finds the coffin and opens it, unleashing an exasperated and thirsty Barnabas who finally escapes leaving no witnesses behind. He finds himself in the 70s, his family’s impoverished and disgraced, and Angelique ruling the town his family once built. And so he takes it upon himself to rebuild his family and give it back its former glory and power, whilst falling in love with Victoria Winters, a young governess – if that term still applies – that strongly resembles Josette.
Though initially somewhat fast-paced (regrettably hinting us that Barnabas’s past won’t be up for much discussion), Dark Shadows manages to stay focus for a little while, when introducing Victoria and the Collins family. It is when Barnabas is released that things get out of hand: the vampire takes the stage, and everything else just fades in the background. Not that he isn’t compelling, but for a film that ends with such a dramatic and gothically romantic reencounter between the two lovers, it sure neglects the object of his affection for nearly the whole time. Instead it turns to Angelique, who is still madly in love with Barnabas, and is constantly trying to win his affection, in between loathing his family and keeping her position has the city’s most powerful woman. Again, not that she isn’t interesting, quite the contrary, but isn’t it strange that she doesn’t really interact with Victoria? Memory may fail, but I can’t recall a single scene between the two.
Furthermore, some things remain unexplained (or poorly explained), and nearly all the characters are shamefully shallow. In fact the two are obviously connected: all of the character’s past are a huge blur, and not even their current lives are made clear; we’re told to hate Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller), but we’re not told why, in fact it seemed like they bribed him early on just to get rid of a character; David Collins (Gulliver McGrath) is a looney and says his mother talks to him, and that’s about it; Jackie Earle Haley may be great as Willie Loomis, providing some jokes, but he’s character seemed more pointless than the old lady; and then there’s Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz), a sexually frustrated fifteen year old who turns out to be werewolf. I’m still not sure I how feel about this character. I get what they’re doing, but it just doesn’t feel right — my laughs here came mostly from shock, not amusement.
However, Michelle Pfeiffer was perfect as Elizabeth Collins, she’s a fine actress so nothing short of great is expected. In her hands Elizabeth had plenty of personality and made for some interesting scenes, mostly grounding the whole thing with a more contained character that provides just the right amount of credibility. Helena Bonham Carter takes on Dr. Julia Hoofman, yet another weird character and, as usual, delivers an exceptional performance. You can see she’s that good when Julia quietly walks into the dinning room and, without saying a word, you know she’s hangover.
Eva Green is, as everyone has already said, wicked good. Besides being blatantly stunning, I never though she could put on such a terrific psycho face. She’s confident and mean, desperate and sexy, and eerie and funny as ever – a nice twist from the original Angelique. And Johnny Depp, well, he’s Johnny Depp. Barnabas Collins is a challenge to add to the many he has faced already, and he once again this prolific actor rises up: Depp takes an eccentric weirdo who finds himself in an impossible situation and manages to make it fresh and, allow me this, even tone it down when needed. There are a couple of right-in-your-face jokes that don’t work (like the overused what sorcery is this, when confronted with a tv), but they don’t over-shadow the good ones, though most of Dark Shadows‘s gems are fairly hidden – the minor encounters with boardgames and other 70s details, the subtle widening of his eyes and slight body movements, and naturally, the old-fashioned, over-elaborate way Barnabas talks, walks, and thinks, that quietly clashes with the “present”. Also, various cameos and ironies are appreciated: Christopher Lee, a renowned Dracula, is hypnotised by Barnabas; a great part of the cast from the original soap opera appears in the ball scene, and THE Alice Cooper is entertaining them – too bad he didn’t interact with Depp, that would’ve been fun.
So yes, the script is, overall, a mess, and the characters are paper thin. I imagine it can’t be easy to squeeze over a thousand episodes into two hours of film, but even with a loose adaptation Burton evidently tried to achieve to much here and ended up loosing control. But you know what… I still like it.
It’s beyond beautiful, blending the 18th century with the 70s with undeniable talent. From set (John Bush) to costume design (Colleen Atwood) and the make-up department, theirs (and Burton’s) attention to detail is legendary. Bruno Delbonnel masters that silver, pale aura of mystique and goth perfectly, being this a definite improvement from the over-saturated and plastic cinematography of Alice in Wonderland, and the overall not impressive one of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (though it can be a matter of personal taste). I can’t precisely recall Danny Elfman’s work here, so no comments, but I do think the 70s hits worked really great, setting the tone right away, with no room for doubts on the film’s purpose — and this is the point I’m trying to make here.
You really can’t take Dark Shadows seriously. Really. From the moment Barnabas looks at the McDonald’s sign and whispers Mephistopheles you know it’s going to be silly. And if you still had any doubts, then having a two hundred year old vampire sitting carefully away from the sunlight in a fifteen year old’s bedroom, surrounded by lava lamps and Iggy Pop posters should make it pretty clear. In fact the whole soundtrack constantly reminds you that you’re looking at a parody-like film. Now, wether everyone will find its bizarre, often truly awkward humour appealing it’s a whole different matter – but unfortunately or not, depending on you’re taste, it is what makes or breaks Dark Shadows. Personally, I’m still laughing at how soon can the horses be ready?.