Sunday, May 27, 2012

Tonal Schizophrenia -- Reflections on "Dark Shadows" (2012)

At least I'm not wearing an orange wig...

Full disclosure may be required before you read my review: the last time I reviewed a Tim Burton film, Alice in Wonderland, my girlfriend – a dyed-in-the-wool Burton fanatic – put me in the doghouse for a bit. My commentary was scathing enough that she a) felt the need to write her own response to my review, and b) told me that she was reluctant to go see Dark Shadows with me because she didn’t necessarily want to know my opinion.

Art is – and should be – like that, though. It should inspire loyalty, allegiance, and passion. I know I often find myself getting a bit pissy when I read a negative movie review by someone I respect about a film I enjoyed. And it always bothers me when I really hope someone will like a movie I adore, and they either don’t, or are underwhelmed by the experience. It’s a beautiful testament to the subjective nature of experience that our perceptions of art can be so varied that one person will watch Boogie Nights and say “it sucked,” while that same person might watch an Uwe Boll film, like Bloodrayne, and call it a “masterpiece.”

With that disclosure in mind, I have a few things to say about Burton’s new collaboration with Johnny Depp.

It doesn’t suck.

Marissa can breathe a sigh of relief now, knowing I don’t plan on eviscerating Burton’s latest tribute to kitschy gothic dreamscapes.

And this film really is a tribute to the campy gothic horror films of his youth, as much so as Edward Scissorhands, or Sleepy Hollow. Maybe even more so. It looks like a cross between a Hammer horror picture of the late 50s and the garish grindhouse films of the 70s. As a result, much of the film feels tonally schizophrenic, as if Burton couldn’t figure out exactly what he wanted, so he decided to just throw it all in. This creates some incredible stunning moments, but also some pretty lame ones, too. Dark Shadows is definitely uneven, but it’s also fun and exciting in a way Alice in Wonderland never was.

I never spent much time watching re-runs of the 1970s gothic soap this movie is based on, so I can’t speak on how close Burton’s film is to the spirit of the show. I know he and Depp have talked a lot about how much they loved and respected the source material, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they clung to it like fanboys, or ever intended to. This film feels more like a Burton film than it does anything I ever saw on Dark Shadows clip shows. And that’s okay – anyone who expects a movie adaptation to slavishly ape the source material obviously doesn’t understand the purpose behind remakes, or why people make films. Adaptations are supposed to give us a new perspective on the source material – the real question is whether or not the new adaptation is successful in and of itself.

Dark Shadows is not overwhelmingly successful, but it certainly is in keeping with themes that Burton has worked with over the course of his career as a filmmaker: feelings of being incomplete, wanting a family, being an outsider. They are all on display here in the story of Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), a centuries old vampire who is at the heart of a curse placed upon him by a spurned witch named Angelique (Eva Green). After a gloriously gothic prologue, in which a love triangle between Barnabas, Angelique, and Barnabas’ beloved Josette is established, we join Barnabas in 1972, as he is brought out of his two centuries long imprisonment in a coffin. Of course there is culture shock to follow, but the biggest shock for Barnabas is that his family – once strong, proud, and successful – has been put out of the fishing business by Angelique’s Angel Bay Fishing Company. Apparently his descendents have been as cursed as he was, and for this he vows revenge.

The best moments in Dark Shadows are those in which Barnabas interacts with his family, especially matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeffier), and her teenage Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz). As Barnabas seeks to connect with these women, we can feel his very human longing for connection, despite the fact that he continually insists that he is a monster. My favorite sequence is the one in which Barnabas tries to reestablish the Collins’ place in the community by hosting a “happening” and getting shock rocker Alice Cooper to perform for Carolyn’s benefit. As Barnabas finds a niche for himself in the modern Collins’ family, I found myself reminded of Edward Scissorhands, in which Edward tries to establish ties with Kim’s family. The desire for family, but the inability to actually fit in, is one of Burton’s major themes, and he gets that right with this one.

What he doesn’t get right is the romance angle. Romance has never been one of his strengths as a filmmaker, his characters all too strange to be seen as romantic figures, and that trend continues here. As sexy as Eva Green is as the witch Angelique, her chemistry with Depp merely flares when it should sizzle, making it hard to invest emotionally in their conflict. Part of this stems from the fact that the third side of the triangle – Josette (Bella Heathcoate) – is so underdeveloped. In the prologue, Josette is compelled by Angelique’s spell to jump off a seaside cliff, but in the modern day, Josette’s spirit is resurrected in the form of Victoria, the Collins’ new nanny. Barnabas is drawn to her, but outside of a couple short scenes, we never really get a sense of his passion for her. So, as the conflict with Angelique intensifies, we never completely feel the pull of Barnabas’ heart strings. This was frustrating for me, mainly because the introduction of Victoria was well-handled and compelling, and then Burton just removes her from the narrative until she is needed for the plot.

Now, plot has never been one of the strengths in Burton’s films. Usually, there are some gaping holes and narrative missteps, so it’s not completely fair to judge his films based on this. Burton is more concerned with the feeling of his movies – the art direction, the costumes, the imagery. And, as with most of his work, he gets that right. The Collins’ mansion is a spectacular set, with ornate woodwork, unique angles, and a gorgeous staircase. The costuming is gothic, yet modern, and will probably yield Colleen Atwood another Oscar nomination. And the use of color is exceptional, popping off the screen with intensity. The film is fun to look at, much more so than Alice, which felt bland and stale, as if Burton were attempting to make a “Tim Burton” film. With Dark Shadows, he finds a design niche that feels like a cross between Beetlejuice and Sleepy Hollow, but never feels like he’s merely repeating himself.

All this said, Dark Shadows could have been better. I’m still waiting for Burton to find a script worthy of his talent – like Ed Wood or Big Fish. I’m still waiting for him to make a more personal film. He is one of the most distinctive, most talented filmmakers working in the industry, so it always feels like a downer when he doesn’t completely deliver. Then again, my expectations may be too high.

Hopefully, after this review, Marissa won’t be so reluctant to see a new Burton film with me next time.

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