By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Jackie Earle Haley, Jonny Lee Miller, Bella Heathcote, Chloe Grace Moretz, and Gulliver McGrath
“They’re creepy and they’re kooky..” Wait. No. “Just the good ol’ boys.…” No, that isn’t it. These songs are to two pretty big shows in not only mine, but many peoples’ childhood growing up. But, what the hell does Dark Shadows’ song sound like? What the hell is Dark Shadows? And what is it about this show that gripped two big members of this film’s cast and its director? 2012’s Dark Shadows hopes to open audiences’ minds up to something from their childhood that they do not necessarily remember, while opening new eyes up to a vampire created that doesn’t sparkle. It marks Tim Burton and Johnny Depp’s eighth collaboration together. Because of this, it is getting real hard mentioning either one without thinking of the other. However, while many argue that seeing them work together in film after film is tiresome, I have always, at the very least, been intrigued with each and every new project they take on together. All this being said, I kind of went into Shadows a little skeptical. The previews seemed uneven, and Burton’s tendency to go from slightly off kilter to downright bizarre (like he did with 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) seemed to be more likely for this movie with each passing preview that I watched. So, the question that remained was: is it off kilter enough to be entertaining, without going off the edge? Well, yes and no.
While the film’s cast seem to be having a great time onscreen, when it was all said and done my initial reaction to the previews were actually not far off from how I felt about the film as a whole. The film’s opening minutes, however, really gripped me from the start. We get to see the back-story of how Barnabas Collins (Depp) becomes a vampire. Depp wisely plays it coy here, and the way he discovers his new ‘creature of the night’ look is actually very well done. Composer Danny Elfman’s score swells and the film’s scenery chews up the scene. However, this is also where we meet Angelique the witch (Green). Out of this entire cast, I really could either take or leave Green (2006’s Casino Royale), and she really didn’t leave much of an impression on me one way or the other. This being said, I did highly enjoy this opening, and I dare say that Shadows never reaches this level of heart and investment in its characters for the rest of its running time.
Instead, we meet Collins’ “family.” There’s the always dressed in black Elizabeth (Pfeiffer, who in her mid fifties is still as whistle inducing as ever). There’s her rebellious daughter Carolyn (Moretz, who is good as always). There’s Elizabeth’s son David (McGrath). And, there’s Roger, (Dexter’s Miller, who is hilarious in his dry deliveries). However, as good as all these people were, for me the one who steals the show is Haley (who along with fellow 2010 Nightmare on Elm Street co-star Rooney Mara seems to be recovering from that embarrassment rather nicely). He has a lot of funny moments in Shadows (including delivering perhaps the funniest opening line of dialogue by a character all year), and I really enjoyed every single minute he was onscreen. All of these people are very credible in their roles, and it was actually easy to like them. It is after Barnabas is awakened by construction workers (in a scene that reminded me of the opening few minutes of Jurassic Park, making it perhaps the most horror-like moment of the entire film) that the movie sort of veers off course.
Not that I am not enjoying it. And most of that enjoyment can be attributed to Depp. After striking box office gold in 2003’s launch of the Pirates of the Carribean franchise, Depp has had a harder time finding roles to, if you will excuse the pun, sink his teeth into. Not surprisingly, it was another collaboration with Burton (2007’s underrated Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) that I mark as a highlight of his work since then. However, here he just seems to be not only playing a part that he had been trying to play for awhile; he seems to be having a lot of fun doing it. Watching him discover the wonders of asphalt & Superfly (and finding an ingeniously hilarious way of including product placement), I couldn’t help but almost see a gleam in Depp’s eyes that I have not seen for quite some time. And, I think most of this can be attributed to how his friend Burton is directing it. Intense in the beginning, one cannot help but think of Beetlejuice when watching a fun Barnabas interact with his family in a dinner scene not even a few minutes later. This, along with certain things that happen in the finale and his directing of how Barnabas handles many aspects of the 70s aesthetic created for the film, made it not only a reminder of past works. It also made for, ironically, one of his most original story settings in years.
While the directing and (most of the) acting were pretty much spot on, I felt the film was highly lacking when it came to the script aspect. Originally penned by many time Burton collaborator John August, it was given a rewrite by Seth-Grahame Smith (who also wrote the upcoming Burton production Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter) and I think the styles of both writers just didn’t meld very well with the story it was trying to tell. For example, while watching Barnabas discovering that red lava lamps weren’t filled with blood & smoking dope with and killing hippies was amusing, we should have been given a better grip of the story at that point. The film just doesn’t seem to know when to stop with the yuks and get on with the plot, which is a huge detriment to the entire movie.
However, what really saves the film from being a big disappointment are other frequent Burton collaborators. People forget, that along with containing Depp, many of Burton’s films also contain scores written by one Danny Elfman. And, when his music isn’t reminding me of a carnival, it can be great (Edward Scissorhands being an example of this). Here, he does not disappoint, and I would argue that it is one of the top 5 scores of his entire career. Also, while this is Burton’s seventh collaboration with real life partner in life Carter, I always seem to agree with the roles he decides to put her in. And, with her lightning quick line deliveries, red hair and tendency to wear sunglasses indoors, Carter once again almost steals the show like she did in his 2010 ho-hum remake of Alice in Wonderland. However, that was not to be with Haley around. All this being said, I realize that Burton’s style isn’t for everybody. He likes keeping his main characters pale as much as Michael Bay likes keeping his tan. And, in this case, Burton’s mix of humor, drama, and horror never fully works, as its uneven script ends up hurting it immensely. In the end, Dark Shadows is enjoyable as a set of moments. Not as a narrative movie. Now, if only Elfman had scored Avengers.
3 out of 5