Review: Tim Burton's 'Dark Shadows' is More Fun Than It is Funny
by Jeremy Kirk
May 11, 2012
It’s safe to say Tim Burton is comfortable where he’s at in his career. If we would have heard 20 years ago - even 10 - he was redoing “Dark Shadows”, the 1960's soap opera about vampires, ghosts, and all things supernatural, we never would have imagined something more sinister than Johnny Depp overacting in white makeup or Burton spitting every color in the rainbow at a macabre world. Like Poe written in Crayola, Dark Shadows takes the cheesy, chintzy nature of the series and revamps it for broad comedy. Though it's entertaining through and through, the comedy doesn't quite work when it's supposed to, and Burton's dreams of recreating the show for mass audiences are sadly washed away in a river of colorful Skittle puke.
In the film, Depp's Barnabis Collins, a wealthy playboy in the 18th century, makes the grave error of crossing a witch, Angelique played by Eva Green. He breaks her heart by falling for another woman, and Angelique kills his beloved, turns him into a vampire, and buries him in a tomb. Over 200 years later, Collins becomes freed, and he finds the shipping town of Collinsport, which his family had established, is not the only thing that has changed.
Burton takes great care in making it obvious to you that Collins is a fish out of water. An 18th century vampire awaking into free love-era 1970's is ripe for comedy, but the director seems only content with showing us lava lamps and peace signs. Burton is a director who injects a certain culture into every one of his films. While Edward Scissorhands was a suburban nightmare from the 60's, Burton didn't race out The Beatles' LPs and Ed Sullivan clips. But Dark Shadows is set it a version of our world, not one of its own, and the cultural references he drops in hit with a Friedberg-Seltzer thud. Okay, it's not that bad, but you worry that it could. Prat falls, obvious set-ups and deliveries, and the most awkward sex scene this side of "True Blood," and a whole, helluva lot tamer, and you realize you should be laughing more than you are. At least that's the intent.
The Burton-style machine is fully on deck for this one, as well as Burton taking the time to reference styles, gags, and even lines from his earlier works. A scene with a ghost in bed sheets can't help but call back to Beetlejuice, and you swear Eva Green is mimicking Lisa Marie in the way she moves in skin-tight dresses. But unlike Burton's film before this, Alice in Wonderland, the Dark Shadows atmosphere, cliffs and forests and manors and all, plays better to his style. Instead of being distracted by the environment, you're kind of enraptured by it. Add the quirky and motley crue - typo intended - and the film, as a whole, becomes amusing.
Tim Burton knows how to have a good time. I am convinced of this. Though his fumbling and shy persona is what we perceive from the man, you can tell when he's having fun. It's in his work. It's the way his characters come alive, at least the ones we don't want to kill when they're doing a stupid dance. When the worlds he creates aren't obnoxiously awful, they have a way of sinking their teeth into us. We go away to Tim Burton Land for a couple of hours, and more often than not, it's a fine example of escapism. Dark Shadows is no different.
Johnny Depp found his footing a long time ago, thanks in large part to Burton, and his Collins is a rampantly violent - He has no qualms with ripping out throats of the innocent, which Burton doesn't care to shy away from showing. - yet melodramatic figure of old. Depp drowns himself in the part, and why should we expect any different from the man who turned Keith Richards into a pirate?
But it's the supporting cast who really bring the whole picture to life. Green, though Lisa Marie in appearance and stature, is having a blast as the nefarious Angelique, a witch who knows she's doing evil and doesn't give a damn. She steps up her game greatly in the film's back half when Angelique decides to take out the whole Collins clan for good. Jackie Earle Haley does a fine, comedic job as the oft-drunk groundskeeper to Collinwood Manor and quickly becomes one of the more continually funny aspects to the film. Michelle Pfeiffer as the present-day matron to the Collins estate shows us why we loved her so much. She brings out the seduction of Selina Kyle more than a few times here and still delivers some of the best timing when it comes to comedy and overall reaction to her fellow players. Someone get this woman a starring role again. Burton regulars like Helena Bonham Carter and Christopher Lee do a fine job, though Chloe Grace Moretz as a rebellious teenager is basic - She's not a veteran actor. She's excused.
Dark Shadows plays on all the "charm" of the 1960's series, but the dial-tilt to the broad comedy side wasn't the best choice Tim Burton has ever made in his career. It's the movie's selling point, and it doesn't work. That's a big problem, one the film has a hard time getting over. Fortunately for it, and us, Burton's palette works fine with the story and the characters required of it. Depp is front and center, but it's the collective of fine actors handling of such colorfully charged characters that pushes the film into recommendation territory. It's unfortunate you can't say Dark Shadows is funny, because it sure is fun to watch.
Jeremy's Rating: 7 out of 10