Wednesday, May 23, 2012

107. DARK SHADOWS (2012)

The first 10 minutes or so of Tim Burton's DARK SHADOWS (scripted by Seth Grahame-Smith, based on the Dan Curtis 1966-72 teleseries) may well go down in history -- my history, anyway -- as one of the movies' most regrettable broken promises. This brooding, opulent, genuinely operatic prologue, in which the adult voice of Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp, channeling Richard Burton) narrates the romantic missteps that led the jilted witch Angelique (whom we see first adoring him from afar in childhood, later played in two dimensions, hateful and haughty, by Eva Green) to cause the death of his true love Josette DuPr├ęs (Bella Heathcote) and to not only damn him to loveless eternity as a vampire, but to ensure he won't enjoy a second of it by committing him to earth in a coffin swathed in silver chains. Then the film cuts, in an abrupt but brilliantly appropriate shift of time and mood, to 1972 as we join Maggie Evans (Heathcote, looking like love-at-first-sight-incarnate) aboard a train bound for Collinsport, Maine, as she adopts the new identity of Victoria Winters and heads toward a new life as a governess -- to the tune of The Moody Blues' "Nights In White Satin," a sensitively chosen counterpart to the earlier footage's oaths of deathless love and blown-scarf romanticism. The effect, as the understated credits roll, is disarmingly powerful.

What's especially wonderful about the prologue is that the original series, performed live on videotape, was always a rough draft of the story it told; it was a sketch that the viewing audience was invited to worry over, in their day-to-day viewing, until it achieved the full sail of its grandiosity. So, seeing the opening of DARK SHADOWS is like seeing the back story told by the original series in final draft for the first time -- and thus, at least for this DARK SHADOWS fan, tremendously moving. I suppose you could look at it now like nothing that Coppola's wrongly-named BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA didn't do before, but the original DARK SHADOWS started all that "Love Never Dies" jazz.
In retrospect, the prologue also contains the seeds of the film's unravelling, as it dispenses with the most compelling story it has to tell before the credits roll. Likewise, the entire film suffers from too much compression -- compression of story and character, and apparently also of score, since my standout recollections of the film's music have more to do with source music than any original compositions by Danny Elfman. (That said, I do recall various touches of hommage to Robert Cobert that brought a smile to my lips at some very apt moments.) At an ill-kept Collinwood, Victoria meets Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer, effusing middle-aged regality and ready to act but totally superfluous to anything going on), her 15 year-old proto goth daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz, who is introduced listening to Iggy and the Stooges' "I'm Sick of You" -- granted, recorded sometime in 1972, but five years before it had any kind of release), her live-in alcoholic shrink Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter, blithely passing up a wonderful opportunity to send-up Grayson Hall), the scoundrel brother Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller, likewise re Louis Edmonds), and his young I-see-dead-people son David (Gulliver McGrath), whom we never see tutored. Victoria sees them too, quickly coming face-to-face with her historical twin, who informs her that Barnabas is coming... just before an excavation site unearths him. Barnabas feasts on the blood of his construction worker saviors, puts groundskeeper Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley) under his spider-fingered control, and ingratiates himself to his penny-pinching modern-day family with revelations of treasures buried in secret rooms and compartments. It's clever, but much too hurried, much too scattered, and peppered with a lot of "stupid clever" gags clearly below the general level of the film's adaptation and language. In a montage set to Carpenters' "Top of the World" (poor choice), Barnabas lavishes his own wealth on the place, restoring its former lustre, and sets up a cheap joke by observing that families in his day announced their prosperity to neighbors by "having balls." This allows the film a much-too-short opportunity to include four of the original show's cast members (Jonathan Frid, Kathryn Leigh Scott, Lara Parker and David Selby -- onscreen for so short a time, if you look at one face you'll miss three) and a stage performance by Alice Cooper, who is lip-synching "The Ballad of Dwight Frye" when, in a short but again greatly affecting fusion of music and idea, we are let in on the fact that Victoria/Maggie is in fact an escapee from a mental hospital. Somewhere in there, Julia attempts to cure Barnabas' vampirism but is revealed to have other priorities in mind, but the real crux of the story is Barnabas' ongoing conflict with Angelique, now the svelte head of a Collinsport seafood cannery, who not only wants to destroy him but his family's competing factory. There's so much going on that Victoria -- the film's putative heroine -- vanishes for an extraordinary length of time. When the action finally takes us back to Collinwood for the climactic battle royale between the principals, a policeman addresses the crowd, telling the local rubberneckers to go back to their homes, there's nothing more to see... I'd like to think that's Burton's own embarrassment talking, about the pending CGI free-for-all that follows.

DARK SHADOWS has all the signs of having had too many "notes", too many cooks in the kitchen. Its tone of voice changes all the time, and it seems to be playing to different age grouped audiences almost by the reel. There is much here that is worth seeing, including a fine Johnny Depp portrayal (seriously!) that plays, to some extent, off his earlier role in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and is brought into finest relief in a scene where he gets to measure his own classy vampire act against the master, Christopher Lee, playing a grizzled seaman at the Blue Whale tavern. There is also a good deal one regrets seeing, or that feels like something we've seen before (in forgettable movies like Robert Zemeckis' DEATH BECOMES HER). But when DARK SHADOWS is at its best, it attains a level of excellence we haven't seen from Tim Burton's erratic filmography since ED WOOD (1994) and proves him now capable of playing deeper, more complex chords than he's had to attempt before. Sadly, this is the project that needed his fullest virtuosity and tenacity as an artist, and he opted for shallow flippancy and another spin on his "everybody's weird" carousel. Maybe that's the concession that got the film made.
In theaters now.


  1. It's by no means a hateful experience, and Burton fans at least shouldn't be dissuaded from seeing it (indeed, it's a definite step up from the likes of PLANET OF THE APES or ALICE IN WONDERLAND).

    But, yes, a missed opportunity, and a waste of several actors (I think Miller could "do" Edmonds, but he has about a dozen lines, and Moretz's character; well, you know).

    The 1972 setting also put me in mind of the 72-made BLACULA and THE DEATHMASTER (the hippies).

    I like DEATH BECOMES HER, but I get what you're saying; if anything I suspect the ending gave Pfeiffer (no Catwoman bravada here) unwanted WITCHES OF EASTWICK flashbacks.

    I wish the 91 TV show had lasted longer. With a great cast it was on to something, then it was gone.

  2. Missed opportunity is exactly right.

  3. Oh, and, as always, always reassuring to see Shane Rimmer, a favorite "pop up" actor--popping up in various Bonds, BATMAN BEYOND, etc., here playing "Board Member 1." He's in or near his 80s and looks pretty much the same as always.