Saturday, May 12, 2012

Littered with Cliche - Burton's Dark Shadows Disappoints Diehard Fans Who Loved Dan Curtis' Show

Fans of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are finally able to see the results of a new take on the gothic soap opera "Dark Shadows" from the '60s and '70s. Together Burton and Depp present a gothic vampire story with 1970s-era pop culture with some class and mainly clash. I question if Burton's fans will a) know the Dan Curtis version of "Dark Shadows" and b) will leave the theatre saying that Burton and Depp deliver a beautifully tragic story they will feel sentimental about in ten years. They have stiff competition in that the soap opera delivered 1225 episodes for the fans to look back on with dedicated love.

We definitely get the iconic Tim Burton themes of his depiction of children as victims, loss of parents, parents misunderstanding children, the mob mentality against or for outsiders, and transcendence of time and old age as a metaphor. We have seen Burton's child versions of main characters suffering at the hands of other adults in nearly all of his films. Here in Dark Shadows, Barnabas Collins as a child is not unlike the innocent boys we've seen in Sleepy Hollow, Edward Scissorhands, Batman, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Writers John August and Seth Grahame-Smith do well with the creative language of old centuries and spoken with a nod to the original Barnabas Collins played by Jonathan Frid. However, the jokes about adjusting to the new century don't reach a level of hilarity enough to forgive the obvious cultural adjustment angle. We've seen new world vs. the old world in dozens of movies and it is old in five minutes. The aim is to get teens into the humor, but it fails to be funny enough after several scenes of using the same joke in different ways. We see a young and then a grown up Barnabas before being turned into a vampire, quickly thrust into an eternal suffering at the hands of Angelique Bouchard, the witch, played incredibly well by Eva Green. The story is breezing by the audience too quickly while the cliches about cultural nuances take up way too much screen time.

Depp as Barnabas Collins is not a miscast, in fact, he has his physicality in his walking and in his use of his hands as well as the old world speech style. The make-up and hair is a bit exaggerated, but you cannot take your eyes off of him. Depp's Buster Keaton-like subtle slapstick style occurs when Barnabas is exposed to sunlight, when he finds the secret room, when he meets Willie Loomis for the first time (played by excellent character actor Jackie Earle Haley), and when he looks for a place to sleep.

Green's version of Angelique is the best example of an actor doing their homework in depicting Lara Parker's version of Angelique in the TV soap version and making it her own. She runs Angel Bay Fish Company and has portraits of her "ancestors" in the conference room in quite a hilarious array of time periods. She has the right level of OCD for Barnabas Collins and her super powers are exciting to watch. Her villainy is enhanced by a subtle special effect that depicts a weakness which is fun to see progress throughout her attempt to defeat her enemies. It brings to mind the TV show's storylines.

Equally eccentric is Dr. Julia Hoffman played by Helena Bonham Carter. We get small edges of the original character, whom Grayson Hall played, in the way Bonham Carter talks to Barnabas. The liberties taken with HBC's version are not unwarranted. We see her trying to help Barnabas, but the character was never totally without selfish reasons. There's a lot of liberty taken on the doctor-patient confidentiality in a most comedic way. The original Dr. Hoffman did have an unspoken love for Barnabas.

Some storylines are not fully explained and fans of the TV soap will hear hints about David's mother and will have to make assumptions that the film is hinting at the storyline involving the Phoenix metaphor. It is poorly executed as a side story, in the end, leaving out a crucial piece of history involving David Collins' mother.

For some reason Barnabas decides to throw a ball which takes a joke about an outdated kind of party and makes a reference to body parts -- clearly another attempt at humor that teens could enjoy if they haven't grown bored. At the start of the arrivals to the ball, if you blink you'll miss the cameos of four of the original TV soap stars, Lara Parker, Kathryn Leigh Scott, David Selby, and the late Jonathan Frid. Alice Cooper is the headlining performer highlighted at the party and offers no enhancement to the story. His name is joked about by Barnabas, again with the cultural adjustment.

There are important story points involving Victoria Winters/Josette DuPres, both played by the wonderful Bella Heathcote. Victoria and Barnabas could have a richer story, but the film depends on Angelique and Barnabas a little too much so Victoria and Barnabas' story never feels fully-realized. At a climactic scene, Victoria is nearly forgotten until their side story has to be quickly resolved, though there are liberties taken again. As we've seen in all vampire films where there's a romance between the living and the dead, the common tragedy is one dies and one lives forever. It is disappointing to see the cliche arise out of nowhere. Dan Curtis would definitely had opted for a cliffhanger or tragic plot point. The film resolves the situation to help Burton reach closure, but "Dark Shadows" fans are going to find the ending a bit irritating.

My rating is 3 out of 5 headless dolls with 2-1/2 going mainly towards the performances and 1/2 going towards the fake looking production design, which is a definite tribute to the low-budget sets used in the soap opera.