Sunday, 17 June 2012

Dark Shadows Review

Dark Shadows is based (unsurprisingly) on the sixties and seventies gothic soap opera of the same name. I’ve never seen the TV show, because despite its unique take on the contrived soap opera formula, it is still a soap opera; and we all know the ‘a polished turd’ adage. Given the then relative youth of the genre, DS was presumably innovative and somewhat of a trend setter, but then so was the Ottoman Empire’s torture tower of meat hooks and I’m not lining up for that.
So I went into the movie theatre with the layman’s experience in mind, but I had heard from associates that the movie religiously sticks to the show’s format in much the same way that Ratko Mladić followed The Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the letter; so I doubt being well-versed in all things DS would have mattered beyond amplifying my crippling disappointment.
I must say, it is refreshing to see Tim Burton attempt to portray a colourful decade as gloomy, Christ knows the world already thinks of England as a dank, depressing hellhole; must be our devilish universal free healthcare. The movie is simultaneously as gothic as The Batcave club and as seventies as Tony Manero’s pants. As is the norm for a Burton flick, the score is provided by the legendary Danny Elfman; and is a wonderfully foreboding with sense of welt·schmerz. Iconic pop songs from the late sixties and early seventies are sloted tactically in between Elfman’s nightmarish string based lullabies, which I presume serve only to remind us that the story takes place in the seventies. Occasionally the dramatic crescendos reach the point where the dialogue is practically drowned out; though I suppose that is as misfortunate as accidentally putting that Christmas sweater on a non-wool wash, amiright?
The story further continues the saga of the Man of Many Faces (portrayed by Johnny Depp), a character last seen being a Scottish nutter irritating Alice in the mystical realm of Wonderland; fresh from a spot of moonlighting as a serial killing barber. This time around he takes on the form of Barnabas Collins, the heir to his family owned American settlement. The Collins family made the dubious decision of emigrating from Liverpool to start a fishing colony in America, which to me is an out of one frying pan into the eviscerator situation.
However when he grows up from a mere child to become the covetable Johnny Depp, he spurns the affections of servant Angelique (Eva Green), who then places a curse on him; and I probably should mention at this point that she happens to be a witch, as almost every other character in this torrid saga is somehow involved in the supernatural. After suffering a series of cliché gothic misfortunes (no more so than his attire), Barnabas attempts to kill himself by diving off a cliff and enacting a visual representation of Sony’s standing on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. It is at this point he discovers Angelique cursed him to forever wander the Earth as a vampyre; and by wander the Earth forever I of course mean locked in a coffin and placed underground a lá Colleen Stan. This condiluted origin story takes place over the five minutes of the movie and by this point the story is already more convoluted and harder to follow than a villainous Russian phone conversation.
"I'm sorry, this phone conversation just isn't Bond villain enough"
Whilst there are several characters whose eccentric quirks we explore, Dark Shadows is ultimately the Barnabas Collins story; with the vast majority of movie goers being enticed by the potential humour which steams from temporally displacing Barnabas by 220 years, and rollicking in his resultant confusion regarding the mechanics of modern life. There were some very funny moments to be had, such as Barnabas’ escaping his infernal tomb only to discover a near-by large luminous McDonalds sign which he takes to be the mark of the demon Mephistopheles. It is a moment that though humorous, certainly speaks droves about our collective culture if the appearance of a big yellow ‘m’ can induce riotous laughter.
Every single side plot dies a death not too unlike the tourists I keep in the basement; unloved and malnourished. After the pre-story intro scene, the paled faced Maggie Evans/Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote) appears to be set up as the protagonist. However her initial foray as lead character serves only to introduce the rest of the characters and set the scene so that when Barnabas finally does appear we have more time for his whacky shenanigans. Despite Bella’s brilliant low-key performance as the weary but well-meaning Victoria, once Barnabas is re-introduced she gets less screen time than a reasonable Polish character in Die Reise nach Tilsit.
The various characters initially appear to be harbouring the obligatory dark secret and machinations which one assumes will eventually affect the overall plot in some significant way; for example Pfeiffer’s role as the matriarch initially appears to be a ‘by any means necessary’ type - clearly distrusting Barnabas but tolerating him as he attempts to restore the family to its once glorious height. But other than a few shifty expressions this game of power then goes absolutely nowhere. Same with Johnny Lee Miller as David’s less than reputable father; as soon as his story arc appears to be picking up momentum, it is cut off faster than a Taylor Swift award acceptance speech.
In all honesty it seems as writer Seth Grahame-Smith tried to replicate the television method of small story arcs which are part of an overarching storyline, but gave up halfway through. The end result is a cluttered, incoherent, near-pointless exercise and if the movie had just been about Barnabas trying to reunite himself with his lost love, Josette, then it could have played out like a postmodern fairy tale. Instead the audience is treated to a movie that is as inconsistent and ill-paced as a documentary on the Doppler effect.
As I mentioned previously the draw here is Barnabas, and with that in mind one would assume his character undergoes a significant development arc; and whilst this is true to a degree, his personality is inconsistent throughout. With Barnabas we have a vampyre in all its glory. Barnabas is a remorseless, undead beast; and for all the attempts at characterising him with the inclusion of the ‘lost love’ storyline, or his laughable fumbles through 1970’s life or meaningless throw away lines about ‘being emotionally destroyed’ by killing, we are essentially being asked to sympathise with ‘the bad guy’. The perfect example of this is a scene in which Barnabas needlessly and mercilessly slaughters an entire hippie commune after previously engaging them in a pleasant and funny conversation; yes I do appreciate that in the grand scheme of things hippies have as much purpose as Mickey Rourke’s tooth brush, but never before has there been such a jarring shift of tone in a single scene – at least until Bull Connor’s brain is reanimated and surgically placed into Jim Carrey.
And whilst not wishing to spoil the plot for those who hate themselves enough to watch this movie, the supposed ‘fairy tale’ ending is actually more depressing than going through my blog roll and seeing all my favourite blogs are now defunct. Again without spoiling anything, Barnabas proves himself to be steeped in more hypocrisy than America’s anti-immigration policies; as up until the very end of the movie he bemoans his cursed existence, and yet still rashly makes such a terrible, terrible decision. Add to the fact that by this point Collinwood Manor is burnt to the ground and Barnabas’ night time activities revealed to the world, I’m pretty sure you can say that Angelique has won; despite being deader than the sexual habits of Sodom during an outbreak of diarrhoea.
The cast is pretty solid with several Burton collaborators returning, i.e.; Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Michelle Pfeiffer, but this is hardly a surprise as the acting in a Burton film is usually tighter than a the arse of an anally virgin duck. Despite great performances all-round the main problem is the poor character development. Other than a particularly memorable performance by the utterly mesmerising Eva Green; pretty much all of the characters are reduced to the role of stooges. The movie’s primary characters practically serve roles usual reserved for secondary or tertiary characters; merely existing to help to show there is some semblance of a plot whilst Johnny Depp dicks about in his elegant attire, but achieve nothing of importance. The cameos are perfect examples of the triviality of almost every other character.
Alice Cooper’s role seems like a wasted opportunity, as though it was done as a favour to the artist and to remind the viewer that this is taking place in the seventies. A good director would have capitalised on the fact that during that time Cooper was mastering his violent, horror themed stage performance; which was naturally considered a potential threat to society. But Cooper’s performance is too homogenised here, and feels like something straight out of the infamous Harry Potter fan fiction, My Immortal; otherwise known as ‘MCR play a gig at every plot convenient moment for no real reason’. It’s not as bad as the Billy Idol cameo in The Wedding Singer, simply because in that movie (set in 1985) Billy Idol looked about sixty, whilst Cooper has looked the same age for the past forty years. Christopher Lee also makes an appearance, but it’s essentially an exercise in trying to get less screen time than he did in Return of the King (talk about under utilising the talent).
As I’m drawing this review to a close I’ve realised I’ve been a bit too harsh toward it. Because just like the iconic Jim Stark, Dark Shadows is not all bad. Tim Burton may churn out more of the same movies than a Chinese copied DVD factory but his directorial and artist flair really does shine through here; one really can immerse oneself in the ambience of the dark, misty and grim fishing port of Collinswood. The sets designs are fantastic, cleverly mixing flamboyant grandeur with stylistic deterioration and thoroughly seventies quirks; and boy I can hear the paraphiliacs fapping from here.
So is Dark Shadows a good film? Truth be told, it is a film I enjoyed whilst watching, but upon dwelling on its contrivances, poor character development, general flaws and a truly bullshit third act, I found myself feeling more and more as though I had wasted my time. Serious fans of Burton or Depp will be at home here, but everyone else will end up disappointed as the potential was there for another great collaboration. I can’t even imagine how fans of the series will feel, but I assume it’ll be like a citizen of Egypt trying to return a book to the Library of Alexandria after Julius Caser’s destructive visit. If you find the idea of watching the soul crushing pain that comes from being temporally displaced amusing, then you’ll probably like the first half of the film; though it has to be said when a movie’s highlights involve an off the cuff remark about “birthing hips” and The Moody Blues’ Nights in White Satin, you shouldn’t go into the movie expecting it to be more thrilling than a free trip to Kirby’s blowjob factory. Speaking of which, I did find it interesting that someone from The Burton household finally literately fellated Depp; I’m just surprised that it wasn’t Tim.
"So when are we going to this Kirby factory?"