Sometimes when a director harkens back to his yesteryears it can be a wonderful thing. On the flipside, sometimes a director puts everything he’s used in the past on the table and revels in it. Case in point today would be Tim Burton. The man has made almost nothing but classics since 1985 when he unleashed his own brand of brilliant lunacy with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Sure, the road has gotten bumpy the last few years and he’s had a couple of lesser films along the way, chiefly Mars Attacks! and his own attempt to reboot The Planet of the Apes.
Some people aren’t huge fans of Sleepy Hollow, Corpse Bride, or even Alice in Wonderland, but they’re still mere blips on his radar in the grand scheme of things. And now, Burton and Johnny Depp (along with the screenwriting debut for Seth Grahame-Smith of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter fame), arrive with their own shaky take on the beloved Dan Curtis-created, cult classic soap opera, Dark Shadows. A culmination of filmmaking techniques employing everything he’s used from Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, the aforementioned Sleepy Hollow, but unfortunately, not enough Sweeney Todd.
This Dark Shadows begins with a voice-over courtesy of Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) in Liverpool, 1760. Boarding a ship with his parents, they set off to build a fishing village in Maine, which they name Collinsport. Years later, Barnabas is eluding the affections thrust upon him by Angelique (Eva Green), who works as a maid. Turns out that Angelique is a real witch (literally) and kills off his parents. That still isn’t enough to warrant his love as Barnabas falls for Josette DuPres (Bella Heathcoate). The only thing Josette winds up falling for is her own death as Angelique casts a spell on her causing her to commit suicide with Barnabas deciding to try to take his own life and throws himself over the edge as well. But Angelique has already cursed him to become a vampire so that he may live forever in suffering.
This isn’t enough for Angelique who leads the townsfolk after Barnabas wrapping him in chains, throwing him in a coffin, and burying him for what turns out to be (almost) 200 years. In 1972, Victoria Winters (Heathcoate again), has just arrived in Collinsport to take a governess position to care for David Collins (Gulliver McGrath), who speaks to his mother’s ghost (Josephine Butler). David is the son of the scheming Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller) who lives at Collinwood Manor with his sister Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer); her angsty daughter Carolyn (Chloë Moretz); David’s habitually hungover, self-medicated, live-in psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter); the manor’s caretaker, Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley); and scene-stealing Mrs. Johnson (Ray Shirley), the manor’s elderly maid.
The actual plot revolves around Barnabas making his return to the estate where he finds his beloved home is not up to par with his memories and learns from Elizabeth that the family fishing cannery has been overrun by competitor Angelsbay. Angelsbay is run by Angie Bouchard, who turns out to still be the one and only Angelique in spite of having not aged one day in the 196 years Barnabas was buried away. Barnabas sets out to restore the family name while Angelique tries to win over the affections of her unrequited love all over again. Even if her dastardly plans may wind up destroying the entire Collins family, along with a lot of furniture, in the process.
The story is surprisingly convoluted, but screenwriter Grahame-Smith seems to be having a ball with the original premise of the Dark Shadows series, even if poking some fun at it along the way. Lots of foam gets spilled across the rocky sea shore even if things get a little too wild in the final act with a few supposed twists coming far too late — if you know anything about the original series. It was full of ghosts, werewolves, zombies, and witches and such, so trying to play at least one of these off as a supposed reveal is just one of two things that only manages to set up the age-old drama of sequelitis.
As I mentioned before, Burton is having a heyday with nods to his earlier works, with a great gag involving cutting holes in sheets. Same goes for composer Danny Elfman. However, Burton, or screenwriter Grahame-Smith seem to have too much affection for the grossly overrated Robert Zemeckis Oscar-winning Death Becomes Her. There is also a subplot involving Roger that is far too similar to the first Addams Family feature and the love story between Barnabas and Victoria seems too much like an afterthought for how much time is spent with the prologue and her introduction.
Thankfully, entertainment value wins at the end of the day, but I should warn you that the film isn’t quite as kooky as the trailer makes it look. However, I can’t say how pleasing it is to have classic Burton back on the big screen, although for a comedy about a vampire, it sure is lacking in the blood department. Something along the lines of the classic stake scene from Dracula: Dead and Loving It would have been a huge laugh, but there are still plenty to be had. And if the film isn’t swallowed up in the whole Avengers fever, Burton has delivered the first of what will probably not be the last of Dark Shadows.
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