Dark Shadows (Burton, 2012)
In many ways I grew up loving the films of Tim Burton and he holds the most spots of any director in my personal Top 97 Greatest Films, so much so that all the recent attacks on him regarding his recycling and rehashing of material, no matter how illogical, unfounded, or simply talking-point-surface-level-dismissals without much credibility tend to bother me. They bothered me so much so that after seeing Alice in Wonderland in IMAX, a film that I found enjoyable but severely underwhelming considering that it followed up what I consider to be Burton's best film in Sweeney Todd and in comparison to his entire filmography, I wondered if some of these attacks were not entirely off point.
And then the trailer for his latest (of two 2012 releases) film Dark Shadows hit the internet a few months ago and I became worried. It all started out excellently, recalling Sweeney Todd, but then it indulged in comedy while "Season of the Witch" played loudly and I was puzzled. The jokes were lazy, the premise seemed thin, and it just left a sour taste. I should probably mention that I have no experience with the original 1960's 1,000+ episode series. Either way, as I walked in to the theater, I was afraid. Perhaps this was the turning point, perhaps Burton really has lost his way. Or perhaps, just maybe, I was fooled by another misleading trailer.
Thankfully that turned out to be exactly the case. While the film certainly has overt comedic elements, Depp and company play the characters with a serious quality that does not revel in excessive pandering. Yeah Barnabus is a fish-out-of-water, but thanks to a signature Elfman score Burton establishes a unique tone that blends drama with comedy. Even the soundtrack, which contributed to the silly trailer, is likely the shinning star of the film. Every musical cue feels so perfect, both in selection and execution, that it becomes easy to get lost in the 70's rock when the narrative drags a bit.
And drag it does, as the script is likely the weakest part of the film. Burton's aesthetic is brought out in full focus and the way he fills a frame and constructs his scenes all speak to his strengths as a strong filmmaker, but even between these aspects and the performances he gets out of the actors - Eva Green is especially great as the antagonist - it's hard to overcome a script that is so meandering and unfocused. As is the case with anything supernatural involving vampires, Dark Shadows goes the way of Twilight before it and incorporates a love triangle meant to propel the plot; however, it's so under developed that I was unsure why one third of the triangle was there (aside from her being a character in the original series, presumably). Had the film focused more inwardly on Barnabus's struggle between maintaining family strength and his lack of any real connection to the surviving members of the Collins family the film likely would have been stronger. That's the odd thing about Burton, even most of his great films have been penned by other people. He works in confines, and sometimes the script is too much to overcome.
As it stands though there's more than enough little moments to give me a feeling a refreshment. Sure it still is a farcry from some of Burton's great films, but the way he channels the energy that made him such a visionary filmmaker is where I found the greatest joys in the film. I'm biased, I'll certainly admit that, when it comes to Burton's films and I think that the attention I give to them is more concentrated than other directors with whom I'm less familiar, so I'm able to pick up on and appreciate the nuance in his movies. But in a larger sense I'm not sure that matters all that much because when it comes down to it, despite the lack of thematic complexity, Dark Shadows is fun.
Notes of Interest: I wrote in my Marvel's The Avengers review that the final action sequence left me underwhelmed. Burton actually indulges in CGI in his final scene which have been objects of criticism especially of Alice, and while some of the reveals were too little foreshadowed (to the point that one caught me off guard because I misinterpreted a clever throwaway line earlier in the film) it's still a fantastic conclusion that is more akin to The Cabin in the Woods than Marvel's The Avengers.
After not really finding much special about the early roles of Chloe Grace Moretz, her turns here (in a character who is not surprisingly underwritten) and in Hugo last year have me fully aboard. She's a Hell of a talent.
There's a lot of odd sexualization in this film. It's always encouraging to see movies talk openly about sex, especially painting children (thirty or so years removed from modern times) as aware. The way a lot of it's presented is problematic in how phallocentric it is, but at least it begins displacing an odd American taboo. I'm not sure if, given the way it's handled though, that it's actually much of a victory.
Speaking of aspects that caught me off guard, this film probably also would have worked better with an R rating.
I probably would have given this film a 3.5/5 if I used half stars, but since ratings are mostly pointless anyway what does it really matter?
Though most people want to compare this to other well known Depp/Burton collaborations like Alice in Wonderland or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I feel like visually (thinking about how Burton uses mise-en-scene and the camera in general) it's more in line with Sweeney Todd and Sleepy Hollow with a tonal balance similar to that of Beetlejuice.
The film kind of sets itself up for a sequel in a few ways, while kind of riffing on one of the many genres Burton tackles, releasing a week after Marvel's The Avengers kind of did a number of this movie and it looks to be lost similar to Speed Racer or similar films. That's too bad, but hopefully it finds an audience or magically grows legs. I could go for a sequel with a tighter script if Burton is back behind the helm.
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© 2012 Richard James Thorne