Review: DARK SHADOWS

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic
Before the trailer for Dark Shadows hit a few months back, I'd never heard of the property before. I'd given many of the Burton/Depp films a pass of late, but I keep hoping for some of the magic found in one of my favourite films of all time, Ed Wood, to once again show up on screen.

There was consternation expressed by some was that the trailer, full of slapstick comedy, was making a mockery of the original Soap Opera. It was then that I heard for the first time of this show that played for some 1,200 episodes, ending in 1971, the year before I was born. Apparently it was a show filled with the usual genre tropes, from zombies to werewolves, with a dashing lead in the form of Barnabas Collins, resident of Maine and certified Vampire.

None of this, thankfully, is remotely necessary for you to know going into the film. In fact, it's better probably if you don't. For that trailer I mentioned made the whole thing feel like it'd be some mad pastiche, a complete tounge-in-cheek take on the story of a Vampire entombed in the late 1800s only to awake in 1972 ('twas a good year, as per above).

One thing I found pretty startling - nearly every comedic moment of the film was plowed into the trailer. If you've seen the trailer, you've had each and every joke or amusing moment spoiled well ahead of time. I can only assume the (packed) preview audience was aware of this, as even semi-funny lines referring to Barnabas being "stoned" back in the day, and it not killing him, generated nary a guffaw. There were a couple moments where in context the humour was allowed to shine, but for all intents and purposes these winking moments fell flat.

Equally startling was the time the film took to get to this place of lighthearted parody. A good chunk of the first act is a relatively straightforward, Gothic-lite recalling of the story of the Collins family. With an affected mid-Atlantic accent, Depp's narration tells the tale of a man led literally off a cliff because of love, only to be cursed into a Vampiric form. Chained and buried, he's uncovered by an unwitting group of construction workers erecting certain golden arches which he mistakes for the mark of Mephistopheles.

Perplexed by the likes of pavement and oncoming vehicular traffic, these bat-out-of-water moments are when the film is at its best, poking gentle fun at the preposterousness of the narrative. Depp is appropriately dour and stiffly presented, and does a decent job at maintaining his tone throughout. When we meet the family, from touchstone Helena Bonham Carter to Michelle Pfeiffer's reintroduction into a Burton ensemble, they all play with appropriate heightened air.

As per anything sourced from the likes of a Soap Opera, the film's tale is appropriately ribald. While visually chaste, we do get loads of heaving cleavage, feigned moments of passionate supernatural coitus, and even a chaste Fellatio gag and adolescent masturbation joke between the youngsters.

Much of the film stumbles along quite affably. Burton's eye for visual detail is of course well established, but I found myself quite taken with, of all things, the splendid costumes. Normally not someone who immediately is drawn to the articles of clothing on screen, I found that there were some delightfully evocative choices for many of the characters. Pfeiffer looks radiant as always, and Eva Green more than makes for a believable seductress. HBC is made to look odd and frumpy at times, yet she too shines at key moments. From his fine suits to perfectly selected sleepwear, Depp's Barnabus is yet another wonderfully realized character from a visual perspective.

Soon, however, things run out of steam. The gags become more and more laboured, the footing of the story as uncertain as the craggy cliffs whose image is cut to throughout the film. In fact, for the last reel of the film, the movie completely dislodges from any of its lightness and devolves into entirely what you may fear this film to be from the outset. I guess it should come as no surprise, this is based on a front-heavy concept that manifestly refused to conclude after over a thousand episodes. This is sourced from a tale that's all setup and no payoff, and so when the film attempts to draw narrative threads to a close, and throws in a minor twist at the end that would be a shock to only the most somnolent of audiences.

I don't envy those marketeers that had to try and sell to a Vampire-weary audience a film such as this. The changes in tone are almost manic, and while it ruins much of the enjoyment of the actual watching, you can at least see why the choice was made to emphasize the lighter moments. When things do take a turn for the serious, it's burdened by numerous clunky moments and odd character beats, including some shockingly awkard moments during the grand finale added, I suspect, to appease whatever fans of the original may be clambering for.

This is a project initiated by Depp's fondness for the source, and like the stories of its central characters, the films failures are due in part to its attempts to serve many masters. In total, the film's a meandering, almost schizoid pastiche of a number of story types, but it has for much of the running time a style that's at least pleasing to gaze at. Dark Shadows may not be particularly illuminating, nor can its final sequence be described as anything less than awkward, but it has a certain hypnotic charm that for some reason, for some of the film, actually manages to work. It maybe a play on words for a Vampire flick to be described as not entirely sucking, but this is about the level of (backhanded) comment that can be mustered.

Watch it for a few fun cameos, some silly sequences and scene (and neck) chewing by Depp, and you may get your money's worth out of a film that I fear may quickly be buried by an other, more esteemed (by some) blockbuster currently enjoying a hulking box office haul.
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