Warner Bros. // 2012 // 113 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // October 8th, 2012
"Welcome to Collinwood. You'll have to imagine us on a better day. " -- Elizabeth
It takes a lot for me to dislike a Tim Burton film. Did he learn nothing from Planet of the Apes?!
Blah blah blah. Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp, Edward Scissorhands) gets turned into a vampire by spurned ex-lover Angelique (Eva Green, Casino Royale) who quickly buries alive for all eternity...or so she believes. Accidentally released from his bonds in 1972, Barnabas must adapt to mod(ern) society and return what's left of his family to rightful prominence, before that evil witch puts him back in his box. Blah Blah Blah. The End.
My mother watched Dan Curtis' ABC afternoon soap opera, with the toddler version of me by her side. That explains much of my long-held fascination with vampires, werewolves, ghosts, witches, demonic possession, and all manner of paranormal weirdness the show became famous for. When NBC revived the series for prime time in 1991, with Ben Cross (Chariots of Fire) stepping into the long abandoned fangs of Jonathan Frid, I was there for every minute of it. Where the original was campy low-budget fun, the revival took itself as serious as a stake through the heart, and did so beautifully. So you can imagine my excitement upon learning Tim Burton was championing a big screen revival, delving back into a genre in which he thrives. Now imagine my horror watching Tim fall flat on his face and taking this entire film with him.
Oy, what a mess. Burton's first mistake was partnering with Seth Jared Greenberg -- sorry, Seth Grahame-Smith. Seth got his start writing non-fiction fan books about the porn industry, Spider-man, and How to Survive a Horror Movie. He then went on to write Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, both of which became NY Times best-sellers. But screenwriting is a far different beast. Anyone who saw Burton and Timur Bekmambetov's Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter know that Seth was unable to establish a cohesive set of rules for that universe and make his characters stick to them. What could have been a great adventure turned out to be some fun and a lot of wasted potential. And that script was written AFTER Dark Shadows, so you can guess how much more painful the plotting is on this film, not having learned any of those lessons yet.
We can break down the most egregious storytelling offenses into three major categories...
Issue #1: The Story
When a large amount of voice-over narration is required to begin any film, we know rough waters lie ahead. Right off the bat, it's easy to see Seth and Tim are attempting to tell too big a story in far too little time. Nobody wants to feel like they need to sit through a lecture on the history of Dark Shadows in order to enjoy this film. Adding insult to injury is Johnny Depp, who essentially rebirths his deeply brooding Benjamin Barker from Sweeney Todd, voicing a similar story of a man denied his one true love by a jealous third party. Been there, done that, with Stephen Sondheim, and had a much better time.
Issue #2: The Rules
Much like our world is ruled by the laws of physics, fictional worlds operate under similar constraints. Series like Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Harry Potter each exist in realms defined by what its inhabitants can and cannot do. Layer on long held mythologies for archetypal characters, and you have a respectable sandbox in which to play. Seth and Tim overlooked some of those details. What's the deal with a witch cursing someone to become Vampire? Don't they have to be sired/turned? Given that Barnabas was imprisoned shortly after becoming a member of the undead, did that conversion come with a Vampiric owner's manual, something he studied religiously while locked away in that wooden box? Because damn if he doesn't come out into the modern world armed with every bloodsucking trope we've ever seen. And how do we manage to avoid any sort of explanation for Angelique's seemingly limitless power? Apparently this self-educated witch can manipulate whatever she wants, whenever she wants, with little more than a thought. How conveeeeeenient.
Issue #3: The Tone
Slipping back and forth between gothic suspense/horror and hip '70s comedy, jars the viewer. For example: Barnabas, accidentally released from his centuries long entombment, feasts on a gaggle of terrified construction workers in true cinematic thrill mode; only to throw his final meal into a nearby junction box, thus lighting up the McDonald's golden arches. Was that our cue to laugh? Because it did nothing for me. If Burton was going for a carnival fun house vibe, he missed wide of the mark. It only gets worse with Depp continuing to play the seriously confused fish-out-of-water card; first time gets a chuckle, the next two hundred elicit nothing but groans and eye rolls. And sometimes the punchlines aren't anywhere near worth the prolonged setup needed to get us there. Like the extended dramatic sequence in which Angelique learns of Barnabas' release, their resulting tempestuous confrontation, and Elizabeth Collins rallying Barnabas to return the Collins family to its former glory; the kicker being an obligatory underdog montage underscored by The Carpenters singing "Top of the World." I'm half-surprised they didn't flavor it all with vintage Scooby-Doo sound effects and a laugh track.
One thing I can't fault Dark Shadows for is its astonishing production design. Scouting up and down the coastal US and UK, Burton's team was unable to find the perfect fishing village to represent Collinsport. So they built it. From scratch. On the Warner Bros. backlot. Unbelievable. From the town shops and the 1/3 scale exterior of the Collinwood mansion to its expressionistic and exceptionally detailed interiors, every facet of these practical effects are awe-inspiring. In an era where it's easier to use CGI, I love watching artisans practice the decades old craftsmanship of their filmmaking predecessors. Plus, we get exceptional throwbacks to Ray Harryhausen, when the manor comes to life. How much cooler can you get?
I've saved my discussion of casting and performance for the end, because it helps illustrate everything that's fantastic and foul about the film. I've already expressed my frustration with Johnny Depp's performance, bringing with it a portent of imminent overexposure. He needs to be extremely careful with his career choices from here on out, lest he quirks himself right out of the A-list spotlight. Another misstep is Barnarbas' anti-leading lady Eva Green, who plays Angelique as a creepy copy of Tim Burton's ex-girlfriend Lisa Marie (Ed Wood). Whether this is intentional cathartic commentary or unconscious coincidence is not for me to say, but the similarities are unmistakable. Green even vomits green pea soup, though I'm not aware of Lisa's abilities in that department. Bella Heathcoate has quite the ethereal look about her, perfect for this '70s period piece. Unfortunately, though her story introduces us to this world, it's quickly swept aside, touched on again only twice; once at the midpoint, and another at the end of the film, resolved in a manner incongruous with the previously established rules. On the plus side, I can't possibly adore Chloe Moretz (Hugo) any more than I already do. Her Carolyn is a raging bag of teenage hormones splitting at the seams. And playing off Michelle Pfeiffer, as her mother Elizabeth, only amplifies both their games. In one of the few true throwbacks to the original series, Helena Bonham Carter (The King's Speech) is pitch perfect as Dr. Julia Hoffman, channeling Grayson Hall's wild eyes and dramatic line reads. Sadly, Johnny Lee Miller (Elementary) is wasted on a one-note character we barely get to know, and it's a shame. There's so much more of Roger to explore. But we do get another great cameo by legendary vampire Christopher Lee (Dracula A.D. 1972), and blink and you'll miss it appearances by original cast members Jonathan Frid (Barnabas), Lara Parker (Angelique), David Selby (Quentin), and Kathryn Leigh Scott (Maggie/Josette).
Presented in 1.78:1/1080p high definition widescreen, Dark Shadows offers up some very impressive and oppressive visuals. You won't find any campy day-for-night shots here. Bouncing from day to night, exterior to interior, there is a tremendous amount of darkness that engulfs the visuals and the viewer. The darker the scene, the deeper the blacks, the more diffused the detail. It's the nature of the beast, when shooting on 35mm film stock. The good news is when color does surface, it burns through the frame with a luminescence all its own. Thankfully, there wasn't any heavy handed digital tampering in post to mar the visual fidelity of the picture. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is even more impressive, loaded with atmospherics, Danny Elfman's somewhat uninspired musical score, and a plethora of period pop songs embrace nearly the entire picture. Dialogue is clear, though there were a few times I utilized the subtitles to clarify a conversation when a character's backs was to the camera.
Bonus features are woefully inadequate for a Burton picture, especially one in which every member of the cast and crew claim Tim Burton was the happiest they'd ever seen him on set.
* Maximum Movie Mode -- The classic pop-up picture-in-picture technology is employed to share behind-the-scenes info as you enjoy the film. These integrated "focus points" are also broken out and can be accessed as individual featurettes (listed below).
* Becoming Barnabas (6 min) -- Johnny talks about collaborating with Tim, costume designer Colleen Atwood, and makeup designer Joel Harlow to create his character.
* Welcome to Collinsport (5 min) -- Cast and crew talk about the work of production designer Rick Heinrichs, and building an entire town from scratch.
* The Collinses: Every Family has its Demons (7 min) -- Tim and his cast talk about the connections to their characters and respective origins.
* Reliving a Decade (5 min) -- Recreating a time period many of the cast and crew actually lived through; the clothes, the music, the atmosphere.
* Angelique: A Witch Scorned (3 min) -- Eva and Johnny talk about developing an intense onscreen love/hate relationship. Tim, "We've all had those relationships...well, some of us."
* Alice Cooper Rocks Collinsport (3 min) -- It's a love-fest, as Tim, Johnny, and Alice geek out about working together.
* Dark Shadowy Secrets (4 min) -- Building this world using a massive amounts of practical sets, miniatures, and classic visual effects, enhanced by green screen when needed.
* A Melee of Monstrous Proportions (4 min) -- Staging and shooting the film's battle royale finale, with actors who love to do their own stunts.
* Dark Shadows: The Legend Bites Back (2 min) -- A very brief discussion of adapting classic horror archetypes, but no mention of the series itself.
* Deleted Scenes (6 min) -- Dive deeper into some characterizations -- Elizabeth and Julia discuss Barnabas, David and Barnabas (a nod to Pee-Wee's Red T-Rex!) talk family, Carolyn and Vicky smoke and talk men, Willie and Barnabas meet the cops, Julia and Victoria discuss ghosts and secrets. All surprisingly informative and would have enhanced the narrative, if it weren't already two hours long.
* Standard definition DVD copy and UltraViolet download.
Look, I'm all for having fun with a recognizable property by putting a fresh spin on it. Barry Sonnenfeld's The Addams Family and Addams Family Values did this to perfection. Just know what you want to achieve before going into it and stick to the plan, otherwise you end up with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Had Burton crafted a loving tribute to the 1970s Hammer Horror films, Dark Shadows could have been an entirely different experience. Instead, it seems like everyone involved was smoking copious amounts of weed, thinking everything they were doing was absolutely brilliant.
Take a peek, but don't stay long, lest you'll be covered in vampire guano.
Review content copyright © 2012 Michael Stailey; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Maximum Movie Mode
* Deleted Scenes
* DVD Copy
* UltraViolet Download