Movie Review: Messy, Goofy DARK SHADOWS Whiffs It in the Ending

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I am amazed at how much I don’t hate Dark Shadows, director Tim Burton’s horror comedy take on the iconic television soap opera.  Granted, my expectations couldn’t have been lower going into the film (when I told my father I had to review Dark Shadows, his response was terse: “No, you don’t”), so, in a sense, I guess I was setting it up for the kind of failure that precious few movies achieve, but I still can’t write off my mildly positive reaction as a case of, “Well, it doesn’t suck that bad.”  When Dark Shadows is working – and I’ll allow that it works for about 70% of its 113-minute runtime – it provides the same kind of fleet, blithely ridiculous fare that Burton hasn’t really served up since…when?  Mars Attacks?  Beetlejuice, maybe?

Not that Dark Shadows is anywhere as accomplished as those two cult classics; even at its best, it’s more-than-a-little messy.  After a bravura, tightly controlled opening montage that sets up the world of Collinsport, Maine, and the supernatural conflict that threatens to tear it apart at a moment’s notice – eighteenth-century nobleman Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp, natch) spurns the affections of wicked witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green, relishing the opportunity to play a cartoon villain), and she retaliates by killing his beloved Josette (Australian ingénue Bella Heathcote) and sentencing Barnabas to an eternity of misery as a vampire – Dark Shadows starts flailing in all directions.  Is it a fish-out-of-water comedy about Barnabas’ struggles to assimilate into 1970’s America (and all the vagaries that accompanied the Disco Era)?  Is it a gothic thriller about the cursed Collins bloodline (given life by a cast that includes Gulliver McGrath, Jonny Lee Miller, Chloë Grace Moretz, and the great Michelle Pfeiffer) and its impact on the surrounding community?  Is it a supernatural romance, as Barnabas reconnects with a mysterious young woman (Heathcote again) who just might be the reincarnation of his long-dead love?  Or is it the Hammer Pictures version of Spy vs. Spy, considering the prolonged and increasingly destructive battle of wills that erupts between Barnabas and Angelique?

The answer to all these questions is “yes,” and on one hand, it’s no surprise that Dark Shadows never comes together.  I get that Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith want to pay homage to the TV show by piling on as many complications as possible, but the narrative curlicues of the daily soap opera don’t often translate into a two-hour frame.  Nothing makes sense, and all the madness flying about leaves about half the principal cast stranded; as lovely as Heathcote is, she’s mostly wasted, and if you can explain to me why Miller and Helena Bonham Carter are even in this movie (other than as limp fan service), then perhaps you can sell me on the value of a time-share in Serbia, too.

On the other hand, I genuinely had no idea where this ungainly thing was going half the time, and that unpredictability – intentional or otherwise – is a rare commodity in your typical Hollywood blockbuster.  This is a movie that casts Christopher Lee as a dyed-in-the-wool New England sailor and doesn’t have him ditch the English accent, a movie that turns the financial battle between rival fish canneries into its primary conflict.  Better still, the actors underplay this nonsense relentlessly.  Ignore the aesthetics of Depp’s Liberace-meets-Nosferatu ensemble and listen to him talk; he’s arch and restrained, and Dark Shadows‘ best scenes find him and Pfeiffer practically whispering at one another with faux-profundity.  That dry tone sells some of the more obvious gags (Look, Barnabas thinks tiny people live inside TV sets!  Now he’s mistaking the MacDonald’s logo for Satan’s signature!) and makes the over-the-top plot machinations more ridiculous – and, as a result, funnier – than they should be.

Dark Shadows‘ biggest asset, though, isn’t its humor or its actors: it’s the visuals.  Aided by Bruno Delbonnel’s lush cinematography and Rick Heinrichs’ immersive production designs, Burton again demonstrates his facility at creating fantastic-yet-fully realized environments.  The whole endeavor switches effortlessly from ‘70s kitsch to gloomy, Mario Bava-inspired atmosphere; I can’t think of another movie so willing to place landscapes from a Copley or a Robertson painting against the kind of shag carpets and disco balls you might find on the Barbarella set.  Everything – from downtown Collinsport to the moody interiors of Collinwood Mansion – is heightened and hyper-real, and it makes for a dazzling sensory experience.

 

Burton also proves himself far more adept at needle drop music selections that I ever thought possible – when he’s not leaning back on frequent collaborator Danny Elfman’s rote, uninspired score (you half-suspect Elfman of rubber-stamping his musical contributions into Burton’s films – they’ve been making the same music together since 1985), he’s making good use of ‘70s MOR, with nicely timed appearances from “Season of the Witch,” “Superfly,” “Crocodile Rock,” and “The Ballad of Dwight Fry,” as well as a breathtaking credits sequence that owns the Moody Blues’ “Knights in White Satin.”  The music alone helps cultivate Burton’s theme-park version of the 1970s – it’s just as Day-Glo bright and stylized as the visuals.

It’s a shame, then, when Dark Shadows starts getting bad in ways its individual elements can’t compensate for.  I will say that once Alice Cooper showed up – playing himself, circa 1972, with the help of some bad CGI de-aging effects – I was ready to leave, and I should have.  Following the random invention of the first two acts, the movie’s climax lands with a dull clang of expensive pyrotechnics and action violence; Burton and Grahame-Smith virtually abandon the weirdness and stray plot threads for a showdown between Barnabas and Angelique that wouldn’t be out of place in a Mummy movie.  The end is a lazy, cynical attempt at normalizing a movie that wasn’t terribly normal to begin with, and it mostly undoes whatever goodwill Dark Shadows had mustered.  Watching Tim Burton not quite succeed is one thing, but watching him pander?

Hurts on a whole different level.

Here are a couple of things that don’t hurt: the picture and sound quality on the Blu-ray.  Burton has a very stylized look – it’s soft, almost pastel-y – but the transfer provides strong blacks and good focus, and the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is appropriately immersive.

Supplements are light but worthwhile.  There’s a Maximum Movie Mode that offers PiP insights about the film as it runs – note: one can also view the behind-the-scenes vignettes separately (they run about forty minutes long) – and five solid deleted scenes.  That we got this much is impressive, considering Dark Shadows‘ critical and commercial woes.

For its first seventy minutes, Dark Shadows is flawed but enjoyable; pity the ending comes up rotten.  Still, I’d recommend it on the strength of the visuals alone and on Johnny Depp’s knowing, sly turn.

The Dark Shadows Blu-ray streets on October 2nd.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

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