Today’s cinema adventure: Dark Shadows, the 2012 big screen adaptation of the classic 1960s supernatural soap opera of the same name, directed by Tim Burton and starring a gallery of players comprised of both frequent collaborators (most notably, of course, Johnny Depp) and high-profile new faces. Taking its basic premise and most of its characters from the original series- a low-budget affair, created by Dan Curtis, with an enormous cult following which thrives to this day- Burton’s film capitalizes and expands on its camp value, and uses it as a vehicle with which to blend his own trademark sense of macabre humor into a nostalgic revisitation of the early ’70s era in which it is set and a tribute to the gothic horror cinema with which he grew up. Long-awaited and much-anticipated, its box-office take was respectable despite the impact felt from direct competition with The Avengers, but it met with disappointed reactions from critics and audiences alike, despite its high production values and the popularity of its director and his quirky leading man.
Though using the television original as a source for its basic scenario, the screenplay (penned by Seth Grahame-Smith from a story developed with John August) veers from the details of its episodic plot in favor of a more-or-less self-contained storyline, making several significant changes in the process. The film begins with a prologue in which the background is laid for the ensuing events; in 1760, the wealthy Collins family emigrates to America, expanding their commercial fishing empire to the coast of Maine and building a majestic estate surrounded by a thriving seaport town- named Collinsport in their honor. However, the family’s young scion, Barnabas, runs afoul of a household servant, Angelique, by spurning her after a brief dalliance; secretly a witch, the jilted girl avenges herself by cursing the Collins family, killing Barnabas’ parents, bewitching his fiancée to suicide, and transforming him into a vampire. She then exposes him to the town as a monster and persuades them to bury him alive, dooming him to endure a solitary eternity with the memory of his loss. The story then flashes forward to 1972; the town of Collinsport still thrives, now sustained by a rival fishing empire founded by none other than Angelique, who has used witchcraft to sustain her own immortality. The Collins estate still stands, inhabited by the family’s last dysfunctional descendants: Elizabeth Stoddard, the stern but determined matriarch; her sullen teen-aged daughter, Carolyn; her ne’er-do-well widower brother Roger Collins; and his troubled young son, David, who insists he can see and talk to the ghost of his recently-drowned mother. Rounding out the household are two heavy-drinking outsiders- the boy’s live-in psychiatrist, Dr. Julia Hoffman, and caretaker Willie Loomis- as well as a newly-hired nanny, Victoria Winters, who has a secret past. These last remnants of the once great Collins brood are surprised by the sudden arrival of Barnabas, inadvertently freed from his two-century imprisonment by the excavations of a construction crew. Despite his monstrous nature, he is still devoted to his beloved family, and vows to help them rebuild their collapsed fortunes and restore the Collins name to its former glory. In order to succeed, however, he must once again confront the vindictive and powerful Angelique, who still carries a torch for him after all these years, not to mention helping his descendants work through their various dysfunctions while keeping the secret of his vampiric identity and continually trying to come to grips with life in the 20th Century. To complicate his task further, he finds himself drawn to the lovely Victoria, who stirs in him the memories of his long-lost love.
It might seem, all things considered, that Dark Shadows would be a perfect match for the unique sensibilities of Tim Burton; the director has built an empire of sorts on his peculiar brand of gothic-flavored pop cinema, drawing heavily on influences from past masters of horror while infusing these macabre elements with a distinctively contemporary flair for irony and dark humor. His visual style mixes the grotesque with the endearing and the arcane with the hip in a way that has become instantaneously recognizable as his own, and his recurring motifs (the focus on abused, disenfranchised characters and their efforts to redress the wrongs they have endured, as well as their need to find emotional connection and the innate humanity often hidden by their outward appearance or outcast status) weave their way through his body of work in a way that further marks him as a true auteur. He has a way of using his horrific subject matter to express basic and universal emotional values, transforming that which at first seems disturbing into something almost sweet; he has created a niche for himself as a cinematic champion for the social outsider, making movies that invert the formulas of traditional romance and adventure and carry the decidedly life-affirming message that freaks are people too. With such a background, Burton would appear the perfect candidate for bringing the campy chills of Dark Shadows to life for a new generation, and infusing it with an added layer or two of contemporary perspective in the process. Unfortunately, the rich potential inherent in this match-up goes largely unfulfilled.
Perhaps the key element in the popularity of Dark Shadows in its original incarnation was its unflinching determination to take itself seriously despite the obviously ridiculous underpinnings of its premise, the banal soap-opera dialogue that often sounded like it was written over the course of a ten-minute coffee break, and the low-budget constraints on its efforts at gothic ambiance; it was never high art, but rather a guilty pleasure. With Burton’s blockbuster approach, these charms have been subverted: the stone walls of this Collinswood never shake when a door is slammed; and instead of bold-facing its way through discussions of ancient supernatural forces with a deliberate lack of irony, the film treats the entire scenario as fodder for self-aware tomfoolery. It’s understandable, even wise, that Burton and his team would take this approach; to recreate the intangible air of somber goofiness that marked the original series would likely be impossible by deliberate effort, particularly in the more sophisticated cultural environment of 2012. The problem is that somehow, despite the impressively crafted visuals and the considerable talent of its star-powered cast, Burton’s film seems sillier and, well, much more pointless than it should. Though some effort was made to recreate the soapy format, at least in the dialogue-driven scenes, and in spite of the obvious reverence in which Burton et al. hold their source material, this effort to bring Barnabas Collins and his broken clan into the flashy present feels bogged down by an inability to mesh the heavily comic reinterpretation into a compelling story; the thematic elements on which the plot is based seem all-too-familiar (especially for Burton) and the key story developments seem perfunctory, as though the script were put together strictly by formula- which, of course, it probably was. In the absence of any real weight in the narrative, all that remains are character development- sadly botched by the script’s cartoonish approach, which gives us caricatures drawn with broad strokes (despite the solid work of the actors) and leaves us confounded by their actions, which seem motivated by the needs of the plot rather than based on any semblance of inner logic- and the heavy reliance on comedy, mostly derived from the juxtaposition of an 18th-Century dandy into 1970s culture, as well as the nostalgic kitsch that comes from the recreation of this 40-year-bygone era. Dark Shadows is full of jokes, but since the majority of them are centered on Barnabas’ culture shock and inability to adapt his mindset to the modern world, it feels like the same one, endlessly repeated. This is not to say there are no laughs here- at times the magic formula does work- but they are few and farther between as the film moves towards its predictably spectacular finale. Similarly, the gothic creepiness which is so integral a part of the world of Dark Shadows– both here and in its former life- is layered on with all the expected excess and Burton-esque flair, but no matter how many visual nods are thrown in the direction of the Hammer horror classics, the whole atmosphere more closely resembles the tongue-in-cheek faux-spookiness of Disney’s Haunted Mansion. In other words, a contemporary reboot of this franchise could have been either funnier or scarier than the original, or better yet, both; but this film is neither. To the director’s credit, although much of the film falls flat, it never seems to be disingenuous; though screenwriter Grahame-Smith’s efforts may lack sincerity, Burton’s translation of them to the screen does not. Unfortunately, his good intentions are not enough to make Dark Shadows into the movie it deserves to be.
That said, it should be observed that there is plenty of exemplary work on display here. Even the critics who were harshest with Dark Shadows were lavish in their praise for its visual style, drenched with Burton’s usual synthesis of Grand-Guignol-goth and candy-coated pop art. He has gotten so good at creating this kind of pseudo-horrific spectacle that it no longer thrills or delights us with quite the morbid wonder evoked by Beetlejuice or Sleepy Hollow, despite the added polish that has come with an increased budget and the advancement of CG technology. Indeed, one almost takes it for granted in Dark Shadows, which is a mistake the savvy viewer should avoid; the intricate and imaginative design and execution of the Collinses world is the one unqualified delight of the film, and the recreation of the early ’70s setting which is woven into the gothic visual tapestry adds an extra layer of flavor- and one which manages to be heavily definitive without resorting to over-the-top parody. Aiding in this sense of heightened authenticity is the saturated cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel, who based his work, to great advantage, on the look of actual films of the era.
As for the cast, it has already been mentioned that they do exemplary work, despite the weakness of the material. There are standouts among them: Michelle Pfeiffer, who comes closest to recreating the style of the original series as Elizabeth, underplaying her melodramatic dialogue like the pro that she is; Chloë Grace Moretz, a young actress with a remarkably mature talent that appears to be propelling her into the status of bona fuse stardom, as the snarlingly rebellious Carolyn; and Jackie Earle Haley, as Willie the Caretaker, whose unfazed, deadpan persona adds a much-needed earthiness to the proceedings. The others are less memorable, even the beautiful Eva Green (as the venomous Angelique), simply because their roles require little of them beyond the one-dimensional functions they are assigned by the screenplay, but to their credit, none of them come off badly for it. There are a few interesting cameos, as well; iconic horror star Christopher Lee makes another Burton appearance as a salty old sea dog; seminal shock-rocker Alice Cooper plays himself, hired to perform at an elegant ball thrown by Barnabas and looking agelessly like his own four-decade-old persona; and as guests at the same ball, original Dark Shadows cast members Lara Parker, David Selby, Kathryn Leigh Scott and Jonathan Frid- the original Barnabas, who would, sadly, pass away shortly before the film’s release- pay a fleeting visit, being greeted at the door by a beaming Johnny Depp.
And what of Mr. Depp himself? This charismatic screen chameleon has acquitted himself admirably in no less than 8 films with Burton, indeed becoming virtually the face of the director’s work, as much a part of his milieu as the sinister subject matter; in these appearances, as with most of his other work, he has displayed a gift for making the offbeat quirks of his characters into utterly convincing extensions of his natural personality, using imagination, intelligence and honesty to give these oft-cartoonish figures an unmistakable ring of truth. Popularity notwithstanding, he is a vastly underrated actor, capable of remarkable range, who augments and enhances virtually any film in which he participates. His performance as Barnabas Collins, though it certainly lives up to his usual standards, is a bit of a letdown. It’s not that he is any less committed than usual- indeed, he exhibits a clear relish for the part, no doubt a result of his long-standing wish to play it- but that, once more, the script falls short of the mark. Though Depp infuses his over-the-top mugging with his customary connection to truth, allowing us to believe in this unlikely character as more than a cipher in an extended skit and even making him likable enough to care about his ultimate fate, his Barnabas is ultimately a hollow spectacle, an exercise in comic acting that lacks a solid core; he plays the character to a tee, but in the end, thanks to the formulaic writing, he has made no inner journey. He, like all the other characters, has simply reacted to each plot development without growth or change, which makes our wish for his ultimate success more of a reflex in response to the conventions of the narrative than a result of any real connection to the character. It might be argued that this is the nature of true melodrama, which concerns itself with outward events rather than inner truth, and is therefore apropos for a film that is, after all, based on a soap opera; nevertheless, it hardly allows for a truly engaging experience, resulting instead in an entertaining but noticeably shallow diversion that seems to drag on interminably despite a relatively short running time. Depp’s performance, as the centerpiece of the film, is just the clearest representation of the singular flaw that prevents Dark Shadows from ever truly drawing us in: a lack of any real purpose to propel it forward, making it feel, in the end, like an overlong pageant instead of an engaging story.
I wanted to like Dark Shadows. I wanted to very badly, and I had high hopes for it because Tim Burton is, for my money, a truly great filmmaker; his work has an audaciously subversive glee that makes even his most commercial projects feel edgy, and even if many of his biggest films are ultimately less than the sum of their parts, he has an impressive track record that will surely leave him, in the final analysis, standing firmly in the pantheon of cinematic masters. That said, his very best work seems to occur when he veers away from his most characteristic material, in films such as Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Ed Wood, Big Fish, and Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, flavored with his particular style but ultimately informed by another sensibility and governed by a different set of rules. Dark Shadows, though it was originally spawned by another mind than his own, is nevertheless a quintessentially Tim Burton film, and bears his own unmistakable stamp. It’s not a bad movie, by any means; it’s at least moderately entertaining, though unlikely to elicit any strong reactions of either fear or laughter, and it is certainly good-natured enough to be forgiven for not quite living up to its potential. What is troublesome about Dark Shadows is that it could have been great- should have been, even- but it was defeated before a single frame was captured on film. No matter how talented its director, how masterful the designers and artists who bring it to the screen, or how brilliant its players, a movie with a mediocre script will never be better than a mediocre movie. This is, of course, a problem as old as movies themselves- countless would-be classics have been sunk by incompetent writing- but it is particularly upsetting when artists of this caliber fall prey to the trap. Both Burton and Depp pursued this project, and it was a labor of love for them from beginning to end- how then, could it go so wrong? Perhaps it was, after all, their affection for the material that tripped them up, blinding them to the faults of their film with false confidence in the notion that such a seemingly natural match of artists with their material could not help but succeed. Whatever the reason, it was an artistic miscalculation, for Dark Shadows is probably the pair’s most easily forgettable joint effort, and Burton’s least effective film since his abysmal remake of The Planet of the Apes. From a financial standpoint, however, despite its less-than-hoped-for success at the box office, the sure-fire formula still netted both men- and the studio- a considerable amount of money, leading to the most disturbing suspicion of all- that Hollywood greed overrode artistic aspiration, as it so often does in the film industry, denying us all the joys of the Dark Shadows movie that might have been.