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Even though his brand is as identifiable as Coca-Cola, the "Tim Burton" of today has only a passing resemblance to "Classic Tim Burton”. The superficial eccentricities of Edward Gorey-inspired design and atonal humor have remained, but the beautiful melancholy that drove those eccentricities has been lost on the way to making something more "clever" yet, regrettably, forgettable. Many of the films following his masterpiece Ed Wood seem like random works for hire. It pains me to think that the man who could find the humanity in a goofy story like Edward Scissorhands would end up making something as dreadful as the remake of Planet of the Apes.
Made for an audience of no one, Dark Shadows is a mess of campy horror, "fish out of coffin" comedy, and gothic melodrama. In fact, it seems less like a remake of the TV soap than the 1979 Dracula spoof Love at First Bite. Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) loves the nightlife after being cursed by his harpy mistress, the witch Angelique (Eva Green). He awakens from his centuries-long nap in the year 1972, a year full of unfortunate fabric choices, mirror balls and his even weirder descendants. The film basically plays on one joke: the vampire Barnabas confronting this "modern" world. He sees the golden arches of a McDonalds and thinks it's the symbol of Mephistopheles (he may have a point.) Spying at the real Alice Cooper through his opera glasses Barnabus comments, "Ugliest woman I have ever seen." So, that zinger was kind of funny. But most of the jokes misfire.
Now, this kind of movie can work. Burton did it fairly well himself with Sweeney Todd. But this time, working from a screenplay by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies author Seth Grahame-Smith, there is no cohesion between the elements, no moment when the funny becomes uncanny or when the silly becomes surprisingly moving. A campy horror scene is just followed by a melodramatic one, and than a silly scene. Never do these elements collide in any meaningful way.
Fans of the original TV soap are the most left out of this vision. If you are one of them, stay far away from this film and just watch Dan Curtis' 1970 House of Dark Shadows instead. While that flick basically covers the exact same story, there is very little of the same feel. Fans of the show know that it has a very particular flavor. It derives from the most ridiculous of plots that are played out with nuclear seriousness by a cast blissfully unaware of the level of absurdity the show reaches for. One vampire, several witches, and a romantic werewolf are all just trying to survive a daily supernatural "strum und drang". The key to this is that no one ever played it for humor.
The best moments in the film are those that try to recapture some of this flavor. As Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, Michelle Pfeiffer has perfected her soap opera delivery. Listen to her and you can almost hear Joan Bennet. Helena Bonham Carter plays Dr. Julia Hoffman in a very unique manner. Since this is a comedy, her inebriated line readings come off as humorous. However, she could've easily kept the same performance for a more straightforward approach to the story. It's a wonderful piece of sly, melodramatic acting. Eva Green on the other hand is simply fantastic in a crazy performance as the "snake" Angelique. She matches Depp toe to toe and never once lets the performance get out of control.
Depp is an actor whose performances derive from whatever "mask" he wears. This time the finger extensions he has attached to make his hands look as long as Nosferatu's act as his mask. Depp plays every scene as though he cannot get his mind off of how fun it is to look at himself in a mirror moving those looong fingers. They move all the time and eventually become very distracting. Even more distracting is how Depp is made up to look like a Halloween vampire, with clown white greasepaint and black circles around his eyes. Standing outside in the afternoon sun wearing white gloves, an ascot, a wide brimmed hat and holding an umbrella, Depp looks less like a vampire than the spitting image of Michael Jackson.
The Blu-ray really captures the immense work that Burton and his collaborators put into the film. I don't know if I have seen such a shadowy movie achieve so much tonal variation amid the shadows themselves. There were purple shadows, dark shadows, dim shadows, and stygian shadows. It’s amazing work and all well captured on the disc. An early scene between Michelle Pfieffer and Bella Heathcote takes place in a very dimly lit room with foggy exterior light appearing to be the source, and the scene has all the mood and photorealism you can imagine.
The special features on the disc are "Focus Points" and "Deleted Scenes". "Deleted Scenes," as usual, features clips that clearly needed to be cut. Some scenes were interesting on their own, but within a film designed as a series of moments, no new moments were needed.
"Focus Points" is Warner Bros.' way of putting together short behind-the-scenes pieces and sprinkling them at appropriate places in the body of the film. All were mildly interesting, but standard, peeks at what looks to have been a very passion-less shoot. Well, except for the feature on "Collinsport". Watching the film, I would've sworn to you they had shot in some Northeastern coastal town and just added some things via CGI. The way the water looked lapping up against the wharf was too convincing. Well that's because they built the whole town! Including a huge tank filed with water and boats that could move about the "sea". Amazing. My jaw actually dropped at the sight of them building this thing. The next thought I had was, "They went to all that trouble for this forgettable movie?" What a shame. I sometimes wish they would've done as they did in the old studio days and allowed someone else to shoot a smaller budget film on that set before it was torn down. Maybe even one shot by a hungry director, like Tim Burton himself during the days of Pee Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice.
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