Ever since his feature directing debut with Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Tim Burton has been known as someone who puts visuals before anything else in the film. Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Mars Attacks! are prime examples of this, but they work because Burton brings an energy to them that allows the final product to stand above any other flaws it may have. But every once in a while an Ed Wood, a Sleepy Hollow, a Big Fish, or a Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street comes along that has a story great enough to work with Burton’s affinity for eccentric and grand productions to create magic, and when one watches these films, we are watching the definition of what cinema is all about. Both of those kinds of films are what made Burton one of the few director today who can get a mainstream audience into theaters based on his name alone.
But then something happened with Alice in Wonderland. The match up between Burton and Lewis Carroll’s classic novel was a match made in heaven, one which cinephiles had always wanted to see. But in the end, despite being his biggest financial success, the film was a pedestrian failure. It was such a failure in the eyes of most of the cinephile community that many lost their faith in him (not me, I just though it was a simple failure, not a terrible one). The script was largely to blame, but it also lacked that crazy energy that had been a part of every one of Burton’s films, even Planet of the Apes, his worst film to date. And really, what is Alice in Wonderland without crazy energy? So, this is probably the reason why many wrote-off his next film, Dark Shadows, so easily. It is yet another visually-driven and weird film, starring his two muses (Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter), but in reality it is a return to form for him, showing that he, like many great directors, can save a great film from a really bad script.
Dark Shadows, based on a 1960s soap opera which ran for more than 1000 episodes, follows the life of Barnabas Collins (played as an adult by Johnny Depp), who in the late 1700s left Liverpool with his family to exapand their fishing business to America. They succeeded and became one of the most prominent families in the country and even had the town of Collinsport named after them. But not everyone was happy about their success. Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), who worked for the Collins family for many years, was in love with Barnabas, but when he couldn’t love her back she, a witch, killed his parents, curse the woman he loved the most (Josette DuPres, played by Bella Heathcote) so she would take her own life, and turned him into a vampire, had him hunted down, and then buried for many years.
However, more than 200 years later, sometime in the 1970s, a construction crew discovers his tomb, and Barnabas is released from his prison. He returns to his beloved Collinswood manor to find it in a very poor state, and inhabited by Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), her daughter Carolyn (Chloe Moretz), and her nephew (Gulliver McGrath), all that remains of his blood line. Also living there is Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), the family’s live-in psychiatrist, as well as their new governess, Victoria Winters (also played by Heathcote), a woman with a shady past. And so, with him back in the world, Barnabas sets out to restore the family to its former glory, but there is one thing he never knew would be in the way: Angelique now runs the biggest fishing company in town.
Like I’ve already mentioned, the biggest problem with the film is Seth Grahame-Smith’s script. He had about 1000 hours of source material to draw inspiration from for a good enough origin story. But instead of focusing on just one story, he tried to do what soap operas like the original “Dark Shadows” do: juggle multiple story lines. That works fine in the television format because they can devote hours and hours to each character, but you just cannot do that in a film, unless it’s an ensemble piece that grants equal time to the characters, but the main focus still remains Barnabas, and so that leaves us with very little satisfaction in regards to the other characters, some way more interesting. And also, as written the third act is a mess. It plays as if Grahame-Smith suddenly realized that he had to have some conflict, and just threw everything at the wall to see what would stick, even some twist and turns worthy of a soap opera.
But I can’t deny that he did a few things that I liked. Some of the story lines were intriguing despite being underdeveloped. But then again, it can all be attributed to the source material. Also, I greatly enjoyed the humor that derived from seeing Barnabas trying to adjust to life in the 70s after being buried for over 250 years. But even so, the script is a mess.
Another thing that irked me was the final shot of the film. It was on the way to ending on a very strong note with one of Burton’s beautiful fade-out endings, but in a move that I’m sure was forced by the studio, we leave that beautiful shot, and move into another one that sets up a sequel. And the worst thing is that the sequel will never happen due to the poor boxoffice numbers. Had it ended there, the film would have been stronger, but alas, studio politics won that battle.
But this is when Burton comes in a saves the film with his trademark style, and his usual energy. The sets, designed by Rick Heinrichs, are among the best in Burton’s filmography. Colleen Atwood’s costumes are rich and detailed, as always. Danny Elfman turns in one of his most interesting scores in years. With this and his work on The Wolfman, I feel like he works best in horror films. And Bruno Delbonnel’s lighting and color palette work perfectly with the Burton look. It’s a wonder why they hadn’t worked before. All of this comes together to create something that strikes the right tonal balance between comedy and humor, leaving us with a suspenseful drama, with nice moments of comedy relief.
Equally as important as the sets, this film features a great ensemble cast, with each actor giving equally good performances, which is something that was missing from Alice. Depp, in his eight collaboration with Burton, is a ton of fun as Barnabas. Sure, some might say that he’s pretty much playing Jack Sparrow with a much more elegant vocabulary, but it’s a different enough performance to be unique. Eva Green find the right balance between being sexy and a crazy stalker, although her American accent falters from time to time. Pfeiffer’s performance might not seem all that great, particularly since she is playing such a thanless role, but she does play this woman who has been put through a lot to keep her family afloat, and so she has to be very unemotional to keep herself together. And Heathcote as Victoria Winters is just lovely. Again, she doesn’t have much to do, but she’s lovely. And McGrath could have a great future in the movies if he has a good agent and has a great support group at home. He’s one talented kid. Miller, Moretz, and Carter are also good, but their roles don’t give them a chance to let their talent shine.
In the end, Dark Shadows was saved by the Burton-isms that many people are tired of. It may have a terrible script, but I’m glad I watched it. It is a huge step from Alice in Wonderland, so hopefully he’ll continue to work his way back up with Frankenweenie, and hopefully he’ll soon give us another great film.