Dark Shadows

Over the years film directors have allied themselves with their favourite actors to form lasting partnerships, combinations that lead, in some cases, to their best work. John Ford made more than twenty films with John Wayne, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro were inseparable before Leonardo DiCaprio came along, Neil Jordan and Stephen Rea remain seemingly joined at the hip while Woody Allen made a film a year with Mia Farrow in the decade from 1982 to 1992, until it all got a bit weird.

Getting weird doesn’t seem to bother Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. In fact, they seem to thrive on it. For Dark Shadows, their eighth collaboration in the twenty years since Edward Scissorhands, the pair has composed a Gothic valentine to an almost-forgotten occult-themed daytime television serial, which ran from the late sixties to the early seventies in America but never made it to screens on this side of the Atlantic.

Having taken more than a billion dollars in box-office receipts for his reimagining of Alice in Wonderland, Burton has been given a sizeable production budget with which to play dress-up. The production design is slick and sumptuous, the cast is filled with stars, the costuming and special effects are superb. However the story is a shambles, to say nothing of the sense of fatigue that surrounds watching, once again, an archly mannered Depp wandering through elaborate sets in pale greasepaint while speaking in a strangulated voice.

Pitched somewhere between horror and comedy and missing both marks by some distance, the story opens in 1760 as the well-to-do Collins family leave Liverpool for a new life in the New World. Having established a fine house and a thriving fishing business in a town they modestly call Collinsport, young Barnabas Collins (Depp) has fallen in love with a beautiful young woman (Bella Heathcote), spurning his housekeeper Angelique (Eva Green), a jealous witch who is a dab hand with a curse. Furious, Angelique dispatches Barnabas’ true love to a watery grave and turns the young man into a vampire, sealing him in an iron coffin for two hundred years.

Disinterred by a gang of soon-to-be-drained construction workers in 1972, Barnabas sets about reuniting with his descendants. The surviving Collins’, led by matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) have fallen on hard times. The once proud mansion is falling down around their ears and their fishing business has failed. Pretending to be a distant English cousin, the vampire moves in and sets about restoring the family to their former glory, convincing Elizabeth that he poses no threat to her, her brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), brattish teenage daughter, Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz) or Roger’s troubled young son, David (Gully McGrath). 

The other residents of the house are not so easily convinced, including alcoholic child psychiatrist Dr Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), newly-hired nanny Victoria (Heathcote again) and dogsbody janitor Willie (Jackie Earle Haley), who Barnabas quickly makes his personal Igor. The only person standing in Barnabas’ way is Angelique, his cauldron-stirring nemesis from two centuries ago, now a wealthy fishing magnate with porcelain skin, ruby-red lips and a predilection for low-cut evening gowns who is still obsessed with either winning Barnabas’ heart or driving a stake through it.

A stranger in an even stranger time, much of the film’s sense of fun is derived from fish-out-of-water Barnabas’ nonplussed navigation of the early 1970s, his courtly manners and frilly cuffs allowing him to pass as a gentlemanly English hippy while he wanders around his former home, delicately fingering period relics like Macramé knitted doilies and lava lamps. The beautifully constructed mansion, filled with carved wooden statuary and cleverly hidden secret rooms, is a pleasant enough place to pass the daylight hours but Burton’s story soon runs out of things for his undead protagonist to do, with the repetitive gags stranding Depp somewhere between The Addams Family and Austin Powers. A scattered few sexual innuendoes and unsurprising character developments provide events with a limp frisson, but even these seem shoehorned into a rapidly dwindling central narrative that is palpably exhausted far before the end.

Depp extracts as much juice as he can from his deadpan vampire with the singsong voice but has played this character, or a variation of it, far too many times for Burton and the results are nothing new. Barnabas is a funny character that Depp cleverly underplays but without an engaging story to provide him with some impetus, he slowly fades into the background. He’s all teeth and no bite. Opposite him, Green plays her vampish witch with particular relish, her flashing eyes signalling a tone of wolfish humour and camp morbidity that the rest of the film only achieves in fits and spurts. Reunited with her Batman Returns director, Pfeiffer is the only secondary character that Burton doesn’t seem to lose interest in and provides a consistent presence, even as the scattershot story collapses into a mess of flaccid jokes, narrative dead ends and elaborate special effects set pieces.

1 comment:

George Muzea said...

Mcquire needs to get laid. The movie was hilarious.