Sunday, May 13, 2012

Tim Burton's Dark Shadows: Did my low expectations save the day? Kind of.

"He's coming."


A few scenes came near to ruining the movie for me. But overall, Burton's consistent gothic mood that prevailed even during some of the goofier scenes, plus a few choice character changes that incorporated surprising elements from the original show, left me more satisfied than I anticipated.

I've been following this project for a while now, what with how I'm an obsessive Dark Shadows fan and all. So I was heartbroken when I saw the idiotic trailer. Then, of course, the collectively crappy reviews came out. My expectations were, well, low. I remembered seeing Sweeney Todd when my expectations were pretty high thanks to fair reviews and my own fangirlish excitement, and I was let down by the lack of humor and cuts to the source material. I think the opposite happened here.

Again, this film is far from flawless. Visually the movie's stunning, but has there ever been a Burton film that wasn't? Aside from his penchant for spirals and saturated colors that can ring a little monotonous, Burton's distinct style is what's he's known for--though often at the expense of character development.

That point can definitely be argued here, and I'd blame that on the rushed story line. Which, frankly, is to be expected in a movie that incorporates plot points from a soap opera that ran over 1,200 episodes.

And about those characterizations. With the exception of Barnabas and Angelique, they were all pretty paltry:

Jackie Earle Haley as Willie Loomis: Before watching the movie, I made the conscious decision to try--try--keeping the original show out of my mind as much as possible. I attempted putting myself in the mindset of someone who's never seen the show. I think as a newbie I'd have been mildly amused by Haley's Willie and then promptly forgotten his character existed. As a fan, I quietly mourned the downgrade of my DS crush from a tortured manservant with a conman past into a shiftless drunk who's barely memorable. Still, Haley's delivery is wry and understated, and though not very memorable, he's passable.

Jonny Lee Miller as Roger Collins: Suffers greatly from limited screen time. Hard to get a feel for Miller's acting, though I didn't really mind how he turned out to be an even bigger douchebag sleaze...bag than the original's Roger. Certainly not as lovable as Louis Edmond's snooty patriarch, but again, Miller was passable.

Gulliver McGrath as David Collins: Very effective little kid who didn't make me want to vomit; again, possibly because we don't see him that much. But when we do he's appropriately soulful and disturbed. I like the inclusion of his mother Laura's ghost, though her actual appearance at the climax feels shoehorned in and ultimately unexplained (Hoffman hints at her cyclical immortality, but no mention of being a phoenix). I wish we could have had some good scenes between he and Vicki; after all, she's the governess who gets through to him in both the original and the revival. Slowly gaining his trust is important to both their characters.

Chloe Grace Moretz as Carolyn Stoddard (has she always used that Grace in her name? I thought she used to be just plain Chloe Moretz): Her Carolyn rubbed me the wrong way. She's given some painfully awkward sullen teen lines (her little outburst during the first breakfast scene is especially clumsy). Moretz got a lot of publicity for this movie, so I was surprised she had no big scenes outside of the werewolf debacle. And that didn't amount to much of a scene. Damn, that stupid werewolf thing. Poor special effect, and too randomly thrown in to be really funny--or dramatic--I don't know what the hell they were going for. "I'm a werewolf. Get over it. Woof," belongs in a Scary Movie sequel, and doesn't gel with the climax's tone. By that point, the action seemed to veer uncomfortably toward spoof, which jarred with the tense mood.

Helena Bonham Carter as Dr. Julia Hoffman: Wins the prize as starring in the scene that almost made me throw up my hands and proclaim that I hate Tim Burton and Seth Grahame-Smith forever. This movie has problems with career women, apparently. The intelligent and crafty Julia Hoffman, who was admittedly downgraded into playing the lovesick sidekick eventually in the original, is really given an even more overt kick in the ovaries here. She may be a brilliant doctor, but really she just wants to be young and sexy again! I will not ever forgive or forget that blow-job scene. And the dispassionate way Barnabas and Willie dispose of her--Willie says, "I never liked the bitch anyways"-- combined with her clownish desperation make for an insulting and degrading turn. Bonham Carter was very good, but she had no substantial character to play outside of drunk wacko letch.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard: Outside of Barnabas, Angelique, and arguably Vicki, Elizabeth is given the most meat to her character. And of course, Michelle Pfeiffer could just stand there blinking (which she does a great deal of the time here) and still be the classiest part of any production. There's a teasing moment during Alice Cooper's "meh" cameo where she and Carolyn appear to be connecting over things unsaid about Carolyn's father, but unfortunately, nothing comes of it.

Eva Green as Angelique: I'ma gonna go subjective here. Angelique will always be Lara Parker to me just as much as Frid is Barnabas, unfair though that might be to subsequent interpretations. It doesn't help that although Green does well, she's another insulting example of this movie's issue with driven women. Julia Hoffman only conducts scientific experiments so she can be pretty again, and Angelique's only a successful businesswoman because she's a spiteful, horny, pining witch who slinks around most of the time in sexy negligees. Because of the rushed plot, we're never given sufficient reason to understand why she, Julia, and Vicki fall all over themselves for Barnabas. Her deadly infatuation is just there, and while the literal handing of her heart to Barnabas at the end is morbidly touching, and I like that they touch on her possessiveness as being corrosive and pathetic instead of actual love, there just isn't enough sympathy for her character to rise above an offensive though well acted caricature of the ultimate woman scorned.

Bella Heathcote as Victoria Winters: I'm gonna say it loud and I'm gonna say it proud: I love, love, love the Maggie Evans twist to her character, but absolutely hate that they neglect her story for so long and keep her flashbacks so brief. But that twist alone made me upgrade my opinion of the movie from "begrudgingly acknowledging it's not terrible" to "actually sort of liking it". The hypnotically saucer-eyed Heathcote looks eerily like a ghostly Jean Shrimpton, and those Mod, early '70s good looks lend her an ethereal grace that holds your attention when the camera settles on her doll-like face. You could argue her inflections border on the wooden side, but I think they possess the proper, grave weight  Alexander Moltke's Victoria had. And yeah, I want her wardrobe like none other.

I actually gasped when she said her first line: "Hello. My name is Maggie Evans." That. Is brilliant. They took the confusion that resulted from the original's surplus of ingenues and used that to the movie's advantage, creating an effectively startling backstory. If only Vicki/Maggie's backstory were given more time to breathe onscreen besides brief snippets at disjointed moments. There's something so strangely touching about Josette's ghost following this child that I couldn't help adoring the inclusion and wanting more of it, see more of their mystical bond. Admittedly, their connection does open up some character problems: my sister took issue with how Burton and Grahame-Smith basically use Josette's ghost as an excuse to wedge in Vicki's romance with Barnabas. It's easy to make them fall in love when she's "destined" to be with him as a conduit to house Josette's spirit. No need to dwell on any scenes that, y'know, establish Vicki's actual relationship with Barnabas.

I wish ardently that in the prologue Josette had more than one line, that Burton had somehow given her a real scene with Barnabas. My ideal scenario: adding in the traditional moment when Barnabas presents her with the music box. To fit that in, they could always take out the blow-job or ceiling sex with Angelique or multiple scenes where Barnabas finds kookier and kookier places to sleep around the house before his coffin arrives. We never really get a sense of Barnabas's love for Josette, so there's no deep connection there for us to recall. He says he loves her. And that's that. While it's cool and all that Burton took the unexpected route of focusing the story on the business side of the Collins family with Barnabas and Angelique's rival canneries, this means that the integral love triangle is shoved in without much fanfare.

Burton does Victoria and Heathcote a disservice forgetting about the character in the wake of Barnabas's revival and his subsequent sexy scenes with Angelique. That said, Ghost Josette might just be my favorite character.

Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins: I have to say, I wasn't expecting much from him this time around. From the trailer and clips circulating online, his makeup looked awful and obvious, stagey and unrealistic, the spiked bangs were greasy and distracting, and he seemed to be mugging with exaggerated gravitas. But while he didn't exactly blow me away as Barnabas, and the makeup was still terrible, he was good. He has a commanding presence, and a great romantic sensibility.

Still, we can't quite tell why so many gals suddenly want to throw themselves at him. His sex scenes with Angelique were particularly cringe-worthy, because while Green's appropriately bawdy (her words), Depp's Barnabas is too classy to buy as that overt a cassanova. A passionate kiss I would have forgiven in that office scene, but anything else was just uncomfortable instead of funny, at least to my prudish way of thinking.

And as good as Depp was, we should have seen less from his point-of-view. Burton's so attached to the notion that all his films starring Depp should be filmed from the actor's perspective, and that Depp should always be the sad-eyed misfit, that any mystery surrounding Barnabas is nonexistent here. Jonathan Frid always said that the juiciest part about playing Barnabas, and the most cunning side to his character, was "the lie". For all his bloodthirsty tendencies, Barnabas was always the suave, unfailing gentleman when in civilized society, obsessed with keeping his Vampirism secret from the remaining Collins family members. The fish-out-of-water elements in this film fall flat when Barnabas constantly ignores Elizabeth's efforts to conceal his identity; this Barnabas thinks nothing of mentioning the centuries he's been alive and that real silver would cause him to burst into flame. A little fish-out-of-water humor is fine, but when it messes with fundamental elements of Barnabas's character, it just plain doesn't jive.

So there we are where characterization is concerned. Now for that controversial mish-mashed tone. Most complaints stem from what many deem the awkward combination of gothic seriousness and juvenile humor throughout the film. I had surprisingly few complaints there. Well, not really: I've harped on already about the blow-job, the supernatural sex, and the werewolf reveal, but I also dislike the quirky montage that ineptly covers the cannery and house renovations and too-obvious visual vampire gags, and random scenes like the hippie slaughter. These was all too broad, when some of the quieter jokes (like Barnabas sneering at a Troll doll) worked far better when simply passed over quickly without comment. If they just took out the aforementioned loud jokes, however, I thought the quieter humor worked well. While not quite succeeding in comfortably lightening the tension of the moment, Depp inadvertently playing the Casio organ while bemoaning his fate was, c'mon, pretty dang funny. Subtler touches of humor worked better than broader strokes. They helped sweeten the melodrama without overwhelming the dark mood too much.

As my sister once again noted, that the movie was fast-paced was a relief compared to some epically long movies out recently, but scenes like the prologue suffered for it. I could've done without Barnabas's narration there, as it detached us from the action, and again, we only get a brief shot of Josette before the lovely thing hurls herself off Widow's Hill.

But oh, that glorious scene where Victoria rides the train on the way to Collinsport set to Moody Blues's "Nights in White Satin!" That was worth the price of admission, and the feel of the movie was right for Dark Shadows. Danny Elman also composes one of his best, most mature scores to date. Absent is his tendency to go all quirky "bomp-a-bomp-a-tingly-tingly" with his tunes, a tendency that plagues some of his other Burton scores.

If only Burton and Seth Grahame-Smith hadn't forgotten the potential in Victoria's character and her ties to Josette, if only they hadn't neglected the other characters, if they hadn't gone so broad and crude with some of the comedy, if only Christoper Lee were in it more! If they had just not let the plot get away from them and if they had put in a ton more thought into character and had better integrated the broad jokes, Burton and Depp would have had a triumph on their hands. The atmosphere is tremendous and succeeds in leaving me with a dreamy, happily nostalgic feeling, but it could have been even more. As is, we have a movie with a solid, consistently gothic mood and a sweeping romance, but a sweeping romance that's too poorly developed for this movie to be considered a high art example of the gothic camp genre. Burton's Dark Shadows is a fascinating, beautiful oddity where you can always just see the marks they missed. I liked it, but it's a high-flown mess.


  1. While I know very little about Dark Shadows I was still pretty engrossed by this review. Although I'm probably biased against this film since I'm so jaded by Burton/Depp collaboration. Yes, I get that you guys are essentially the Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman of director-and-his-actor-muse relationships, but really, you two must separate. For your sakes as well as ours. You have ceased to challenge each other as artists.

    But yes, back to the review. I will credit the film for adapting such a massive story to one film and trying to catch the spirit of it. And I think Eva Green falls in that Charlotte Rampling category of "beautiful women I can't help but find unsettling." Although since you brought it up, why do women fall all over themselves for Barnabas in the original? Why does a witch spend so much effort against him? I'm asking out of curiosity, not as a diss against Jonathan Frid, since I haven't seen the show.

  2. I saw this movie today. I am a big Tim Burton fan, so I thought it would be worth watching.
    I have never seen the original Dark Shadows so I did not know what to expect. I agree with you that the "Nights in white satin" scene was the best, I really got my hopes up at that point!
    Thanks for this review.

  3. ..completely agree about that sex-on-the-ceiling-scene and Chloƫ Grace Moretz. For me it would have done no harm at all to cut her and this scene out at all..

  4. "Yes, I get that you guys are essentially the Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman of director-and-his-actor-muse relationships." Oh Rachel, it's not for nothing that you're one of my favorite bloggers ever. This article at explores the Burton/Depp dynamic, and how it might just be time for the two to take a break: ( Honestly, I think it's fine if they keep working together so long as, I dunno, Depp starts playing different types of roles. How about an oily villain for a change?

    As for the women falling all over Barnabas in the show...yeah, you still kinda have the urge to go "oh, really" while arching your eyebrow skeptically. But at least the characters are fleshed out enough and they're falling for him over a period of time rather than all at once, so it doesn't feel as overwhelming as it does here. But yeah, there comes a point even in the show where you're like, "Angelique, Julia, snap out of it! You guys are smarter than this! Move on, find someone who appreciates you're brand of the strong, slightly unhinged and drunk with power woman, and leave Barn to lust after a 200-year old portrait of Josette that doesn't even look like her!"

    banana, I couldn't get over the "Nights in White Satin" scene. Just the way it was shot, combined with the song, Heathcote's spooky prettiness, and the Maggie Evans reveal was the ultimate highlight for me as well. It was my favorite scene as both a fan of the original and a moviegoer.

    Irene, the ceiling sex will be the second scene to go after the blow-job in my dream-director's cut version (see, this will be different from most director's cut in that scenes will be taken out, not restored). I love Carolyn's character in the original, but have never been impressed by subsequent portrayals. I think Moretz has a lot of potential as an actress, but what do you do with a one-not character like that? There are only so many ways to make "moody teen" interesting, and she wasn't given enough screen time to tap into any of those ways.

  5. I'm still on the fence about this. I love how you mention the driven women trope. I hate that Hollywood shows ambitious women as spiteful bitches. Eva Green is gorgeous but I've heard far too many hilarious things about her character (something about a glass heart and too much Death Becomes Her imagery). And yes, she'll always be Chloe Moretz (we should start a "Drop the 'Grace'" movement).

  6. Ambitious women are either spiteful bitches or they just want a man to make them whole. Or both. Like here. Eva Green is very good, but yeah, after awhile her character gets a little too gimmicky.

    To me the Grace in the name just doesn't look right! Kinda clumsy or something, I dunno. Sign me up for the movement.

  7. Hi Laura Tyler Moore,

    Practically every scene in this movie ruined it for me. Other than Johnny Depp, I now hate everyone associated with this goofy-ass movie! I'm sure as hell glad I illegally downloaded it from a torrent.. or I'd really be pissed! : )

    I don't even care for the name Moretz. She should just go by Chloe or whatever her name was in Hugo.

    I think I would have enjoyed this movie more if Barnabas would have just stared at the troll doll for the whole 2 hours. I use to own several beloved troll dolls as a child, so at least I probably would have gotten all sentimental and had fond memories about schoolyard bullies and sugared toast (I ate a lot of sugared toast as a little von Humperdoo).

    I liked your astute-filled review though (other than the potty mouth words). I've liked everything I read of yours so far. Actually, I might even worship you a little. Your musings show talent, uniqueness, articulation, insight, and they tickle my innards. But I think it was the Bugs Bunny Brunhilde outfit that caused me to start building the pedestal to place you up upon I think this Halloween I'll go as "Rock Bottom" from an 1960 episode of Felix the Cat. Your bravery has inspired me : )

    Your future boyfriend,

    Guidry von Humperdoo

    ps. I'll begin the woo'n process when I have a little bit more time : )

  8. Please, please don't make me choose between Rock Bottom and my other true love, Elmer Fudd as Siegfried. A rabbit in drag can only give her heart to so many cartoon admirers.

    I think if Burton had directed Depp to stare at the Troll Doll for two hours, he could have at least dismissed criticism with an oblique "of course you don't get it, this is avante-garde" line. Alice Cooper reciting Shel Silverstein in a repetitive loop would have been the soundtrack.

    Thank you for your many fine, flattering compliments, Mr. von Humperdoo! Amusingly enough, my inability to staunch said potty mouth words are the only reason The New Yorker won't hire me! The only reason.

    Anywho, thanks again for your thoughts, and I see no reason why adult von Humperdoo shouldn't start eating sugared toast again. Sounds awesome.

    1. The New Yorker is a rag! They don't deserve your gifts. You should write for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram or MAD magazine. I've traveled far and wide.. and them are the only two publications worth bo-diddley in my book.

      HA! you made me google Elmer Fudd as Siegfried. I hope you're proud of yourself. I would go as either (for you) but at the moment I don't have enough free capital to pull off a befittingly EF Siegfried facsimile. I already have the necessary clothing ingredients to pull off Rock Bottom. All I need to buy is a cigar and I'm good to go.

      Ya know, I've never read anything from Uncle Shelby. I always felt I would be betraying my ALL-TIME hero Theodore Geisel if I even took a peek at another children author's work. I'm a very faithful person (unless money is involved).
      Speaking of children authors, have you seen the movie "Lemony Snicket's: A Series of Unfortunate Events"? Surely everyone has. It came out in 2004, yet I never even heard of it (or the book series it was based on) until a couple of weeks ago. Anyhoo, long story short.. I LOVED LOVED the movie : )

      DANG! when I was a little puppy my Momma would beat the holy cow mush outta me if I even said the word DANG! So I've always been very careful not to say much of

      Nah, my sugared toast days are behind me. I'm into Heath candy bars now. Wow! I just got real happy by simply typing "Heath candy bars". I must remember to do that more often : )

      Avant-gardely yours,

      Guidry von Humperdoo

      ps. Do you have a cigar I can borrow?

  9. Chloe Grace is basically her stage name. She's listed as such in pretty much all of her films' credits. People just call her Chloe though. Anyway, I haven't seen this yet and am not sure I want to. I don't care for a lot of Depp and Burton's over-the-top stuff, but I am of fan of Moretz'. It's too bad she got to be a movie with such big names only to have such an apparently poor, one-dimensional role.

  10. She's obviously one hell of an actress, but it's true this isn't the best showcase for her talents. Her role is sadly underwritten. That said, the movie though not great (and certainly carrying the Depp/Burton over-the-top bumper sticker loud and proud), is fascinating and watchable. I actually want to see it again, which I wasn't expecting, so there's that.

    Thanks for the comment, Sav!

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