Hollywood has a funny way of adapting old properties. Sometimes when a star or filmmaker gets really ambitious, they grab their flashlights and shovels and unearth an old idea that nobody has talked about for twenty years or more. In exhuming it, there’s a sense of adventure, a dear treasure being reclaimed, and a hope that others like you who remember it too will share in the joy.
The trouble though, is that often all that time in the ground has not been kind to the property. Re-animating it will take a very careful hand…and if you mis-calculate, then the monster you unleash might not be the monster you intended to awake.
DARK SHADOWS tells us the tragic tale of the Collins’ family. They came to America in the late 1700’s, and built themselves a fishing empire in Maine. Bolstered by the success of the empire, they named the town after themselves, and likewise built a stately manor atop a hill overlooking the entire seaside settlement. However, all was not perfect for the the entire Collins clan.
Their son Barnabas (Johnny Depp) was in love with one woman, and pursued by another. When his admirer Angelique (Eva Green) realized she couldn’t have him, she turned to dark magic in order to seek retribution. Specifically, she brainwashes Barnabas’ lover into throwing herself off a cliff. Wrought with despair, Barnabus dives after her – only to discover the next bit of Angelique’s dark magic. She has turned Barnabas into a vampire, and thus must live without his true love for eternity.
Unsurprisingly, Barnabas still rejects Angelique as an immortal (who’d have guessed?), so she has him buried alive.
In a freak occurrence, Barnabas is unearthed in 1972. As he makes his way back to Collinwood Manor, he sees what remains of the empire. The house is in tatters, and what Collins’ remain are barely hanging on to the fishing business, and the family is essentially rudderless. He reveals his true self to the matriarch, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), and lies to everyone else. He believes the family can rise to glory again, and reclaim a lot of the fishing business once theirs…that now sits in the hands of the equally immortal Angelique.
As DARK SHADOWS began to unfold, it occured to me that there were half a dozen ways Burton and Company could have played this card. They could have played it dead serious and gone for true gothic horror. They could have gone fish-out-of-water, which likely would have gotten old fast. They could have gone for slapstick humour, and allowed Johnny Depp to take the ball and run as he has with every Pirates film so far. Or they even could have played up the melodrama of the soap opera on which the film is based. Those are the directions I came up with off the top of my head; sadly the film didn’t choose any of those directions.
Matter of fact, it doesn’t choose any direction at all.
The film lacks any real cohesion. It begins with the earnest tragedy of a Bronte novel, with soaring strings, violently crashing waves, and Johnny Depp narrating as though he was auditioning for an Alastair Sim bio-pic. It felt like an odd opening given the way the film was marketed, and soon enough the goofiness kicks in. While I usually shrug off such a zigzag, I had to wonder about this particular play. There are many who are already weary of “The Tim and Johnny Show”…why dare screwing with them with the film’s opening?
As the film settles down, it thankfully leaves most of that earnestness behind. However, it’s at this point that the film fails to decide whether it wants to be campy, funny, goofy, or kooky. There are moments of pure absurdity that come and go, along with moments that seem to be a knowing nod to the soap opera on which this film is based. However, with the tone changing from scene to scene, it’s hard to ever truly settle in and get into the right mindset. Many of the scenes succeed on their own, but taken as a whole, the puzzle pieces don’t fit together.
Johnny Depp does the most with what he’s given, however I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d seen that “most” before. The accent, the aplomb, the entire characterization of Barnabas could easily have been swapped out for his take on Jack Sparrow or Sweeney Todd. This isn’t to say that Depp is bad in this film, just that he hasn’t given the character the sort of unique flavour he’s become known for. Say what you will about his continued collaborations with Burton – there’s no denying that every one of those collaborations brought a unique presence (for better or for worse). The scenes between Barnabas and Angelique have a bit of extra zip to them, but beyond those moments, he’s largely sleepwalking through the film.
Perhaps the movie’s saving grace is the performance of Eva Green. Not only does she seem to have having a toe of fun vamping it up as Angelique, but the way she plays almost every scene as if she was in that original soap opera gives her character a lot of consistency. She has amazing chemistry with everyone she shares a scene with, and never holds back on vamping up the bombshell Angelique has become. If Tim Burton was smart, he’d start casting her in every one of his films.
DARK SHADOWS feels like a happy dog with a stick in its mouth, unsure of which way it wants to run with it. The film is tremendously handsome, and in moments wonderfully funny, but it can’t find a way to build upon those elements. Specifically, it never seems to keep the raucous energy up from scene to scene…it allows things to be shackled by watered-down melodrama.
Perhaps it wasn’t time to dig this property out of the ground just yet.
Matineescore: ★ ★ out of ★ ★ ★ ★
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