Staying alive – Dark Shadows review

Dark Shadows – Starring Johnny Depp, Eva Green, and Michelle Pfeiffer. Directed by Tim Burton. Rated M. By Simon Miraudo.

Dark Shadows is Tim Burton‘s best film in a decade. You’d have to go all the way back to Big Fish, or perhaps even 1999’s Sleepy Hollow to find anything comparable in quality. That might be damning it with faint praise, however. Even the biggest Burtonees wouldn’t go to the mattresses over the joy-killing, childhood-ending Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or his just-OK adaptations of Sweeney Todd and Alice in Wonderland. Lest we forget he’s also responsible for coining the phrase “reimagining” while promoting his Planet of the Apes do-over back in 2001; two crimes that we’re still paying for today. Ape Lincoln! That was a thing!

Dark Shadows deserves better than to be called his “best film in a decade” merely by trumping such cinematic sludge (seriously… Ape. Lincoln.). Sure, it continues the trend of modernising a pre-existing property, which feels like an enormous, ongoing practical joke for a filmmaker as imaginative as he. Here though, he takes the Brady Bunch Movie approach, sweetly skewering the 1960s supernatural soap opera it’s based upon and good-naturedly teasing the era in which it was spawned. And yes, his regular co-conspirators Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and the shaman that renders them all ageless have returned to wreak scenery-eating havoc once again, but the resulting bubbly concoction is significantly more delectable than anything they’ve conjured together in some time.

I’ve never seen the original Dark Shadows series – mostly because I usually steer clear of soaps that don’t have the words “Gossip” or “Girl” in the title – so I’m not sure how faithful Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith are (John August has a story credit). I’d investigate, but seeing as “faithfulness” is rarely a signifier of excellence in an adaptation, I’ll happily keep myself in the Shadows. Depp takes on the role of Barnabas Collins, an 18th century aristocrat/loverat who unwisely beds Angelique (Eva Green), one of the maids at his parent’s estate, Collinwood. When Barnabus spurns her for the true love of his life, Josette du Pres (Bella Heathcote), Angelique reveals herself to be a witch and takes her revenge; first by killing his mum and dad, then by entrancing Josette and driving her to suicide, and finally by turning him into a vampire. It makes sense that Depp would co-produce a movie in which he gets to play a love-maker so potent he can send a woman into a homicidal rage.

Buried alive by angry villagers for 200 years, Barnabus emerges in 1971, where he is greeted by the flashing yellow ‘M’ of Mephistopheles himself – or, as we know it, McDonald’s. After supping on the blood of some nearby workman, he trudges back to the now-decrepit Collinwood Manor and attempts to ingratiate himself to his descendants: matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her rebellious daughter Carolyn (Chloë Moretz), Elizabeth’s brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), his haunted – literally – son David (Gulliver McGrath), the boy’s drunken, live-in shrink, Dr. Julia Hoffman (Bonham Carter), and housekeeper Willie (Jackie Earle Haley). Though he (barely) keeps the secret of his undeadliness from them, he invites Elizabeth into his inner sanctum, offering her a glimpse at the family’s hidden treasure and assisting her in the rebuilding of the Collins name. Maybe the out-of-time lothario will even learn how to fit into the seventies, and charm David’s governess Victoria (Heathcote again) too! Cue up countless disco earworms, mild drug references, and an Alice Cooper cameo. He is clearly not under the spell of the aforementioned, age-halting shaman.

What is most surprising, and most enjoyable, about Dark Shadows is the prevalence of sex, which has been absent from Burton’s work since, well, pretty much always. As well it should feature prominently here. Fornication of varying deviance is one of the hallmarks of operatic daytime dramas, and Burton takes to it – and the genre in general – with aplomb. I won’t spoil which pairings we’re treated to, but needless to say, we get the classic soapie form of every action having a reaction, into infinity, and it all begins with Barnabus giving it to Angelique.

The seemingly endless train of sexual ramifications and increasingly ridiculous revelations is an enjoyable one to ride (ahem), though it poses a problem when Burton and his writers need to wrap things up in the third act. Even still, they can’t resist a last not-so-shocking twist to maintain momentum right up until the final frame. Dark Shadows moves with buoyancy and ease. The 1970s setting also affords Burton an opportunity to create a cotton-candy-canvas for his caricatures to play, and we know how much he likes that. Despite the title – and all the on-screen bloodletting – it’s a light affair; fun, and funny, and filled with appealing performances (Moretz and Green in particular). As for Depp, some may have tired of his shtick, but I’ll continue to cheerfully gobble it up so long as he can continue producing uniquely tuned characters such as his Barnabas, who relishes such hackneyed lines as, “A woman doctor? What an age this is.”


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Dark Shadows arrives in Australian cinemas May 10, 2012.

2 Responses to “Staying alive – Dark Shadows review”

  1. Great review. You really nailed the problem with their approach on this. It seems as though Burton, Depp, and the executive producers somehow felt the need to push it away from feeling like an embarrassing look back on their youth in the 70’s.

    So they went with this whole Brady Bunch Movie / 90’s remake angle hoping ‘that’s what the kids are into these days’ instead of trying to capture the strangely entrancing, ethereal drug trip vibe of the show.

    Especially during a period where the eighties are out moving on their way out again and seventies hippie aesthetics has come back in style. It’s everywhere from fashion to alternative bands to music videos, to design, etc. Maybe Warner Bros need to get new blood in their marketing divisions?

  2. I thought DEPP was fantastic, but it was a disappointment for me. not much of a story line and the characters could have been developed more. As usual the GOTH affects were great…( BURTON loves them of course )…but apart from J.DEPP and EVA GREEN, i found the other characters boring. like the previous reviewers said, more should have been made of the real 70s and the over the top fashions and awkwardness of the times. why didn`t they have JOHNNY get stoned after sucking on the “hippies” blood….or maybe he was that way already as the vampire !!! 2.5 stars for mine.

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