Friday, May 18, 2012

Dark Shadows (Tim Burton, 2012)

On paper, Dark Shadows should be a stirring return to form for Tim Burton. Like Beetlejuice, its focus on one main set limits Burton's arty leanings even as it allows him to pour all of his expressionistic flair into his chosen location, maximizing his moody design instead of diluting it across too big an area. And like Edward Scissorhands, it then drags that isolated, anachronistic, black-and-white setting into a candy-colored "normal" world, having fun with the juxtaposition. After the fine but flat Sweeney Todd and the out-of-control Alice in Wonderland, this could have been just what Burton needed to get back on track.

Instead, it marks a low point for a career that already includes the 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes and the aforementioned take on Lewis Carroll. Based on the late-'60s soap opera of the same name, Dark Shadows concerns one Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp, obviously), the heir to a fortune and family legacy until a witch whose love he spurned (Eva Green) took everything from him, turned him into a vampire and buried him alive for eternal torment. Accidentally unearthed in 1972, Barnabas must restore his cursed descendants to the rightful Collins legacy while acclimating to a changed world.

And by "acclimate," I mean be the butt of a series of unfunny jokes that attempt to play on the cultural disconnect between a man from the end of the 18th century and a society in the wake of the Love Generation. But Depp overplays Barnabas, bypassing soap opera melodrama for the outright lunacy of his recent collaborations with the director. This breaks an already isolated character from reality completely, so that his wonder at a woman doctor (Helena Bonham Carter, again, obviously) or a lava lamp become less the outbursts of a confused man out of time than the eccentricities of a weirdo.

Furthermore, for a film that seeks to wring humor out of a man from the past entering the present, Dark Shadows makes a major misstep in retaining the time period of the original soap. What was contemporary in the series is now itself outdated and unfamiliar to the young adult audience being targeted. I myself was thrown almost instantly by Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote, who also plays Barnabas' wife back in the 1790s) answering a classified ad A) in a newspaper, period and B) that called for a governess, a word I don't believe I've ever heard outside of a Brontë novel. Even the music cues hold practically nothing for a modern crowd. Alice Cooper guests as himself and plays two songs, only one of which nearly anyone under 30 has a decent chance of having heard, while the Moody Blues and T.Rex also feature to satisfy Burton's own nostalgia at the expense of any relatability.

The entire cast is hobbled by this awkward campiness and self-absorption. Michelle Pfeiffer, who aded such seductive flair to Catwoman in Burton's Batman Returns, has apparently been deemed too old to do anything but be a starched matriarch, so removed that she registers only momentary surprise at the seismic shocks of learning that a vampire is in the family and that the witch who made him is now her business rival. Chloë Moretz is disturbingly sexualized, while Heathcote is left as limp as a boned fish to be virginal enticement for Barnabas. It's not right to say that Carter and Depp are on autopilot, as autopilot connotes stability and mechanized competence. They continue to get worse and worse under Burton's direction: Carter grows ever more haughty and unapproachable, while Depp...Jesus, where to to start. For one thing, he ports over his Michael Jackson-esque appearance from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, his use of umbrellas and large sunglasses during daylight hours making him look more like the King of Pop than the Count of Transylvania. He cannot speak without drawing out each syllable and flexing his fingers in Lugosi fashion. The joke wears thin at once, and this rates with the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie as his worst work. As for Green, who seemed poised for stardom only a few years ago before she backed away from Hollywood in discomfort, this is what brought her back? As Angelique, her responsibilities include looking pretty and throwing tantrums. The first she does with considerable aplomb, the latter she does with the same loopy yet bored energy of everyone else who must sit captive to Depp's lack of restraint.

If Dark Shadows plays like a mashup of Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, the Burton film it most routinely recalls is Sleepy Hollow. There is of course nothing wrong with this; Sleepy Hollow was perhaps the last great auterist piece Burton made (he would make the more emotionally poignant but visually subdued Big Fish four years later). Collinwood, the stately manor built by Barnabas' parents is atmospheric even when it's meant to convey joy and the prosperity and opportunity of the New World. And when Barnabas reawakens and finds his home in cobwebbed decay, its gargantuan size and dilapidated, faded glory serves as its own mausoleum. And then Burton has to go and ruin it with CGI. Burton was never as good with the aid of computers as he was without it. Take Sleepy Hollow: the biggest explosion of Burton's quirks falls visually flat only when dodgy CGI enters the picture. Its classical, even old-fashioned, effects elsewhere have a beauty to them I haven't seen in any of the director's subsequent large-scale works. Collinwood is the only thing with gravity in the film, and the climax dully throws that out in the window for an over-the-top magic fight that saps what little edge remained within the home's immaculately crafted but poorly tended walls.

The greatest weakness of Burton's "re-imaginings" of pre-existing works is how little imagination he can muster in his approach. Narratively, he takes properties and makes them nominally darker in a search for some emotional truth, ironically making, without fail, less engaging and affecting movies than those he adapts. Visually, Burton has bypassed merely repeating his style—an auterist trademark, not a crime—into crafting a one-gloom-fits-all mise-en-scène that makes all his films these days interchangeable. I still love too many of the director's movies to quit him entirely, and I'd hoped that Alice in Wonderland represented rock bottom. But then, the only way to know if someone has truly hit their lowest point is if they subsequently improve. After Alice I contented myself saying Burton couldn't get any worse. I will not tempt fate a second time.

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