Dark Shadows (2012)

It seems that a lot of people are growing increasingly tired of Tim Burton, accusing him of repeating the same old schtick for his own amusement. Well, his and Johnny Depp’s. But it’s a schtick that does seem to strike a chord with a lot of us and there’s no denying that an on-form Burton is a force to be reckoned with. He seemed like the perfect choice to bring hokey 1950s supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows to the big screen, and with an excellent cast, expectations were high.

In the late 1700s, wealthy Maine landowner Barnabas Collins (Depp) spurns the affections of his servant Angelique (Eva Green), who promptly reveals herself to be a witch, kills his beloved and turns him into a vampire. Barnabas is buried alive, only to be dug up 200 years later in 1972. The Collins family still lives in the mansion but is a shadow of its former self. With only matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) privy to his secret, Barnabas sets about restoring his family to their previous position, but must contend with their main rival: Angelique.

Let’s start with the bad. Audiences who have grown tired of Burton will not find much to enjoy here. Much of the film finds the director pretty much on cruise control, unwilling to take the film to any really dark or strange places. The 70s setting does much of the work for him (Hippies! Lava lamps! Alice Cooper!), the script by Seth Grahame-Smith is sloppy and haphazard, with plotlines dropped at random and characters disappearing from the film for long stretches. The first half often seems to exist only to give Depp a steady stream of fish out of water jokes, some of which are better than others. There’s an abundance of opportunities here with such an array of odd characters and excellent character actors that it’s frustrating to see them wasted.

That being said, we can also report that the film is a great deal of fun. The sets are beautiful, the costumes are magnificent, there are some fantastic performances, and things improve greatly in the second half when things actually get going.

Depp goes for a lower-key performance than expected which is mostly effective, and he works wonderfully with Green and Pfeiffer, who does excellent work as the calm, aloof but resourceful head of the family. However, Chloë Grace Moretz is surprisingly on-and-off as her perpetually unimpressed daughter Carolyn, Jonny Lee Miller doesn’t have much to do apart from wear a succession of turtlenecks as Elizabeth’s ne’er-do-well brother Roger, and Jackie Earle Haley’s drunken handyman Willie Loomis deserves much more screen-time. Helena Bonham Carter has some fun with her aging psychiatrist but she suffers from a similar lack of character development.

The real triumph of Dark Shadows is the casting of Eva Green as the crazed, preening, vengeful, lustful witch. It’s a performance so wickedly enjoyable that when she’s on screen the many faults of the script and the film seem negligible. She completely nails the tone of arch, vampy comedy that the film goes for but only occasionally hits.

The problems with Dark Shadows are many and they are impossible to ignore but it’s never boring. The cast are on good form and clearly enjoying their work, and for the many plotlines that fizzle and are ignored there are some wonderful details that pop up. After a disappointing first half the second builds to a highly enjoyable, over-the-top crescendo.

In desperate need of a better script and more focus, Dark Shadows is not as good as we hoped, but much more fun than we feared.

3/5

Jonathan Hatfull

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