There is one thing I learned about Tim Burton during my early moviegoing years; the last thing you can expect from him is a bad-looking movie. Whether you like his new film or not, you always get two or three nice things to admire when it is over. Even “Mars Attacks!”(1996), which was a cheerful homage to cheap SF movies, had lots of goodies to be appreciated although that movie itself was disappointing.
His new movie “Dark Shadows” is no exception. I have to say it certainly did not disappoint my eyes. Thanks to the funny juxtaposition of two different styles in its dark fantasy tale, I had some chuckles with the audiences while watching the movie during this Thursday evening. However, while the background and the actors are ready for the story to be told, the story lacks the direction it needs, so the movie just moves around the dark, moody, and big mansion on the top of hill and the town below it while we are not caring about what will happen much.
The town’s name is Collinsville, which was named after the British family from Liverpool came to this small beach town in Maine during the late 18th Century. As shown in the prologue sequence, they became wealthy thanks to their fishery business and built that big mansion with pride, but an unfortunate thing happened. Barnabas Collins(Johnny Depp), a young philanderer, broke the heart of a young woman named Angelique Bouchard(Eva Green), and Angelica, who turned out to be a witch, put a curse on Barnabas. She made a young woman Barnabas truly loved jump from the precipitous cliff facing the turbulent sea(just in case you think this is not gothically dramatic enough, I want to tell you that it was also a dark and stormy day). To make the matters worse, she made him into a vampire; she later had him chained in the coffin which was then buried under the ground.
About 200 years have passed, and it is 1972 now. Barnabas’ coffin is accidentally dug up from the ground by the construction site workers on one night, so Barnabas, after filling his hunger(poor guys!), comes back to his town which has been changed a lot since he was buried. Many of the comic moments in the film come from Barnabas’ confounded interactions with America during the 1970s, and this amusing cultural clash provides extra ironic amusement to the audiences living in the 21th century. To be frank with you, I have never been amused like that since I saw George Hamilton’s Count Dracula dancing with his lady at the disco club in “Love at First Bite”(1979).
His mansion and family has managed to endure the passage of time. The house is impressive thanks to those big, decorative sets along with dusts and webs on them, and only few people live there; the family matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard(Michelle Pfeiffer), her rebellious teenager daughter Carolyn(Chloë Grace Moretz), Elizabeth’s useless brother-in-law Roger Collins(Jonny Lee Miller), his gloomy son David(Gulliver McGrath), the alcoholic family psychiatrist Dr. Hoffman(Helena Bonham Carter), an old housekeeper, a dim handyman/chauffeur Willie Loomis(Jackie Earle Haley), and, not so surprisingly, a young governess Victoria Winters(Bella Heathcore), who is, without a doubt, destined to meet the dark, handsome, and mysterious stranger of her life(and she uncannily looks like Barnabas’ lost lover, by the way). This is a nearly perfect ominous gothic environment, so it is no wonder that Barnabas is accepted as the family member not long after he enters the hall.
Barnabas is determined to lift his family to the former glory, but that is not an easy job, because his old enemy Angelique, still young and beautiful, has continued her lifelong work of destroying his family fortune(she has run the competing company). Barnabas still hates her, and so does she, but their stormy relationship is a little more than simple hate. Although Barnabas is a living dead in theory, he is a philanderer at his dead black heart, so he cannot resist the temptation of a seductive witch who still has some feelings toward him. As a result, we get one wild and hilarious lovemaking scene between them. Because this is not a R-rated film, we see them rolling over the floors and walls while not undressing themselves, but it is clear that Depp and Green have a lot more fun than Bella Swan and her vampire groom during their tepid honeymoon night in “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 ”(2011).
With the edgy performance by Evan Green, Johnny Depp’s another offbeat performance in his career holds our attention to some degrees. It has already become cliché to call Depp’s performances ‘odd’ or ‘offbeat’, but he keeps giving good ones while drawing humor and sincerity from his characters. Depp plays Barnabas like a pale gothic horror version of Rip Van Winkle who is also a gentleman with a stiff, old-fashioned view on woman; it goes without saying that he is a blood-sucking monster who can suck every drop of blood from you within 10 seconds, but that is his acquired nature, so he shows some good manners to his would-be victims in one darkly funny moment.
Like Depp, the director Tim Burton, who has collaborated with Depp in eight films including this one, does a nice job of providing the good atmosphere for his movie again. The gray score composed by Burton’s long-time collaborator Danny Elfman frequently steps behind whenever the pop songs from the 1970s appear in the soundtrack for their comic effects. I liked the contrast between the moody atmosphere of the Collins mansion and the lightweight feeling of Collinsville, which reminded me of a lot of the similar contrast shown in Burton’s previous work “Edward Scissorhands”(1990). Although these two elements do not mesh together as well as we expect, we get a few glimpses of that possibility. When Barnabas decides to hold the ball at his mansion later in the story, he is correctly reminded that they do not have a ball any more in the 20th century, so he instead holds a rock party featuring Alice Cooper himself.
Despite several funny or amusing things to behold, the movie falls flat on several levels. It hurls many interesting things to be explored into its plot, but none of them is fully developed, and the talented performers, while looking good as the characters inhabiting Burton’s dark fantasy world, are regrettably wasted as a consequence. We certainly get the climatic confrontation around the end of the story, but it is more like an obligatory closing chapter rather than a satisfying payoff, and the movie leaves us unsatisfied with things remaining unresolved. There are also some surprise revelations in the tradition of soap drama, but they only make the plot messier.
The movie is based on the cult TV series “Dark Shadows”(1966-1971). If you are a big fan of this soap drama, you may enjoy this movie more than me while delighted by a small cameo by Jonathan Frid, who played Barnabas in that series. I can see that Burton had lots of a fun while bringing the characters of the TV series he loves dearly to the big screen, and I know that he wanted to tell another dark fairy tale of two clashing different worlds, but the movie does not know how to suck the rich potentials inside its premise. At least, your eyes will not be disappointed.