Dark Shadows

You don’t view Burton/Depp/Bonham Carter movies in isolation but in the context of the Burton/Depp/Bonham Carter oeuvre. There is no constant theme through these works (from horror-lite via musicals, quirky biopics to cartoons and even superheroes), other than a penchant for gothic darkness and the commercially bizarre, but together they do form their own momentum and are, in the final analysis, soft-hearted and formulaic.

Burton might almost be described as a bankable mainstream cult with his own repertory company, much as Orson Welles was in his own day.  But there the comparisons with Welles end.  There is nothing especially noteworthy about the movies as a collection, but Burton has found a recipe for success and he is sticking rigidly to his formula.

And that is rather the point about Burton.  Whatever their theme, his movies stick close to the storytelling conventions.  They are in many ways technically brilliant updated versions of 50s B-movies, so it is hardly a surprise that to me his finest movie to date is Ed Wood, about the legendary 50s B-movie director, and also starring Johnny Depp.

He could certainly have done far worse than to retain Depp as his regular leading man, an actor with verve and charisma to be sure, with a fine pedigree for making hit movies with or without Burton.  Burton’s wife, Helena Bonham Carter (henceforth HBC), is also a fine actor in her own right, having stepped from her own shadows of being type cast in fluffy Merchant-Ivory period romances (Room with a View, Howards End etc.) in order to ham up much darker and more villainous roles with relish (Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter series), though she was never better than her role of Mrs Potter in the TV film of Nigel Slater‘s autobiography Toast.  

This particular example of the Burton genre, Dark Shadows, is a horror parody, so the publicists tell us.  A spoof, a comedy, a homage based on a TV series of the Munsters era, albeit with one or two chilling effects added for authenticity.  Nods to other directors and movies in the genre, that sort of stuff, a tad classier than the appalling Cabin in the Woods, though the critics have been sniffy.

We open with a rapidly-told gothic back story of how Barnabas Collins (Depp) sailed with his family from Liverpool to Maine, how his father built a business and a vast gothic mansion, of how he came to be cursed to be a vampire by the devilish witch Angelique (Eva Green) and to lose his true love (Bella Heathcote.)

Maybe the movie should have stopped there, but no – we then switch to 1972.  The only rationale for selecting 1972 (bearing in mind that the original TV series ran from 1966 to 71, making the movie simultaneously a remake and a sequel) appears to be so Burton could mock tail-end Hippies, play background music like the Moody BluesNights in White Satin. Indeed, he also features a monster of the era in the form of Alice Cooper – then makes exactly the same jokes about what a fine-looking woman that Alice is, the sort of joke your dad always told that caused you to roll your eyes in indignation at such philistinism and gross ignorance.

When the Collins grave is disturbed Barnabas indulges in a light snack of 11 workmen, then nips off to find his run-down family home in the town of Collinsport, together with the sorry tail-end of the Collins clan.  This is typical Burton: gather together a bizarre and disparate collection of characters, this time under the wing of assured matriarch Michelle Pfeiffer, and allow the hero, Depp, to coach them into Team Collins to fight back against Angelique, who now has the townspeople in her pocket and runs the fishing industry.

Yes, this being Hollywood and Burton, you know there is going to be a happy ending, and indeed that the film will end where it began.  Time for directors to start breaking with conventions and finding new and more bittersweet ways to present their story, whatever the money men might think sells?

Fair do’s, Burton has actually assembled a very fine cast here, and that will have helped flog the concept to the studio heads, if he ever has to sell anything to the bean counters.  Sadly a number are somewhat wasted in cameos, not least HBC in her somewhat unusual role as a therapist with more quirks than her patients.  Jonny Lee Miller is brilliant as a twitchy egomaniac on the make, but he is very sadly under-utilised.  Burton much prefers to linger on Depp but at the cost of cutting some of his cast adrift as 2D cardboard cutouts.  He also much prefers big and lavish set-pieces to perfunctory direction of the minor details, sometimes to the detriment of his movie.

There is no doubt that Dark Shadows is technically brilliant.  Its use of locations, CGI special effects, make-up (Depp’s shadows are unquestionably the darkest) and costume are up there with the best.  But the script is short of the promised laughs, focusing mostly on Depp’s character acquainting himself with life 200 years on.  That said, the sex scene between a witch and a vampire to Barry White in the background, in which the room is totally trashed, is a scream – would that I could say the same of the rest of the movie, one way or another!

My main issue is that in spite of everything that is good, this is a hoarily conventional and, naturally, derivative movie in which cliches abound, and frankly is so totally predictable that I could have written the ending myself after watching the first 5 minutes.  Maybe that is what many audiences want – the feeling of familiarity amid the bizarre – but for my purposes Burton is starting to become boring, and his movies, certainly this one, contrives ultimately to be dissatisfying and far less than the sum of its magnificent parts.

Tim, my old buddy, time to go back to basics and find something original that really will startle an audience, but begin by taking them out of their comfort zone for a few minutes in the process.

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