Friday, May 18, 2012

Dark Shadows

An awkwardly stitched-together collection of mismatched parts, Dark Shadows is a Frankenstein’s monster of a movie, a vampire love story-slash-family reunion played out as a half-funny spoof.

Portraying another in a long line of chivalrous freaks for director Tim Burton, Johnny Depp is Barnabas Collins, an early-American English immigrant turned vampire. But while Depp’s soulful eyes draw us into the torment of Barnabas’ eternal unlife, everything else pushes us away, telling us not to take his story of lost love and unswerving family loyalty seriously. If the tragic Goth hero of Edward Scissorhands, Burton’s first feature and his first collaboration with Depp, could have strode straight out of the mists of mythology, Barnabas would be more at home in a sitcom, where he would be cast as one of those well-meaning weirdoes who’s calibrated to activate the viewer’s maternal instincts.

In fact, this spoofy remake feels a lot more like The Addams Family, a cheery goof of a ‘60s sitcom, than it does the earnest melodrama of the TV original. Like The Addams Family and the Barry Sonnenfeld films that grew out of it, Burton’s Dark Shadows is a mild, meandering story built around the twist that the seeming monster at its center—in this case, Barnabas—is actually an upright avatar of traditional values.

Its biggest laughs come from Barnabas’s befuddlement with American culture circa 1972, which he encounters after two centuries of lonely living-dead interment in a coffin sealed shut by his spurned lover, Angelique (Eva Green). Some of Barnabas’ time-travel culture shock is funny because it’s exaggerated, like when he recoils after opening a secret panel to reveal a hidden room in his old family mansion, only to find it crammed full of tacky macramé. Some is nuanced enough to feel almost poignant, like when he emerges from the woods where he has been buried for generations and kneels to feel the road that cuts through it, marveling at its smooth surface. And some is just plain silly, like when the family’s 15-year-old daughter, Carol (a fierce but sadly underused Chloë Grace Moretz), trying to make sense of Barnabas’ dated diction and pronouncements, asks: “Are you stoned or something?”

“They tried stoning me. It didn’t work,” he replies curtly, leaving her all the more confused.

But when Barnabas’ sense of wonderment fades away, the writers (Seth Grahame-Smith, writing the screenplay from a story by Grahame-Smith and John August) are left to till soil that feels overworked, ping-ponging between Barnabas’ romantic problems, his plans to restore the Collins family to its former place of pride in its small Maine town, and the eccentricities and strained relationships of the few remaining inhabitants of the crumbling family mansion. There are some laughs in this part of the story too, but it’s neither funny enough to work as a comedy or involving enough for drama.

The brilliant costumes and makeup, set design and art direction, lighting and camerawork that have always distinguished Burton’s films, creating a sense of place so strong and coherent that the fantastic seems utterly plausible, are as good as ever here. But they’re not enough to keep our interest, maybe because the Gothic chic Burton helped pioneer no longer has the power to shock. When Angelique starts to disintegrate after centuries of eternal youth, the cracks that appear in her lovely face and the odd angle of her broken neck just reminded me of the desperate housewives of Death Becomes Her, which came out 20 years ago. And the notion that women might find a vampire sexy may have seemed pretty transgressive during the TV show’s late-‘60s-to-early-’70s run, but it barely merits a mention these days.

A strong group of actresses work their underwritten roles with such skill that they almost turn this vampire rom-com into a female empowerment fable. Michelle Pfeiffer is particularly strong as the smart, tough, Austin-Powers-girl-sexy Collins family matriarch, her naturalistic acting standing out amid the strenuous mugging and special effects that surround her. Burton favorite and life partner Helena Bonham Carter delights us by taking the opposite tack, playing her part as broadly as she did the Red Queen in Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. As Dr. Julia Hoffman, the family’s live-in shrink, Bonham Carter can make you smile just by taking a drink.

But in the end, this is Barnabas’ story and Depp’s film. And while the watchful, slightly wounded intelligence in those big dark eyes is always magnetic, and his campy courtliness and stunned-ox innocence as Barnabas are both laughable and moving, not even Depp can breathe life into this lumbering misfire.

Written for TimeOff

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