Dark Shadows-attachment0

Dark Shadows

Movie Information

The Story: Tim Burton's take on the old TV series, which is equal parts tribute, spoof and a rethinking. The Lowdown: A super stylish, lovingly comedic take on the TV show that also functions as a nostalgic -- though not uncritical -- look at the early 1970s.
Score:

Genre: Horror Comedy
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Jackie Earle Haley, Johnny Lee Miller, Bella Heathcote, Chloë Grace Moretz, Alice Cooper
Rated: PG-13

Unless you are some kind of hardcore purist about the old horror soap opera on which this film is based, or are part of the anti-Burton-and-Depp contingent, pay no attention to the bad reviews that Dark Shadows has garnered from those quarters. I would also advise you not to pay too much attention to the film’s trailer, which does the movie no favors by promising—or perhaps threatening—something far sillier than the film itself delivers. Of course, it can—and will—be said that I am biased, that I am a Burton fan and even that I wrote a book on Burton. All these things are true—though I question whether writing a book about someone necessarily makes you predisposed in their favor—but it makes me no more biased than the folks attacking the film. We’re simply biased in different ways and for different reasons.

I would argue that there’s not a single negative review I couldn’t have predicted, and the irony is that they’re often from people complaining that Burton is predictable. Is it obviously a Tim Burton picture? Sure it is. That’s what I expect—and, in fact, what I want—from a Burton movie. I don’t go to a Burton film in the hope that it will be like Spielberg—anymore than I ever bought a Beatles album hoping it might sound more like the Stones. I expect a tone, a style and a certain set of interests or obsessions. Does Dark Shadows deliver these? Yes, it does—with some interesting additions.

Tim Burton fans—and those who simply admire truly personal filmmaking in the mainstream—will be glad to know that Dark Shadows marks a return to form after the disappointment of Alice in Wonderland (2010). Burton—and Depp, for that matter—are back in their groove with this loving spoof of the old Dan Curtis supernatural TV series. As with all good spoofs, this one is obviously made by folks who are nuts about the original. This is something that comes through in just about every scene. Depp wasn’t just being polite when he told the ailing Jonathan Frid (the original Barnabas, who showed up for a quick cameo) that if it hadn’t been for his iconic portrayal, this movie wouldn’t be happening.

Chances are that just about anyone seeing this film knows the gist of the story: Accidentally released after 196 years from his imprisonment in the grave, vampire Barnabas Collins (Depp) returns to his ancestral estate to become part of the family. That’s more or less in keeping with the TV show, but the film has a somewhat different idea in mind, namely Barnabas dealing with the startling differences between 1776 and 1972. (The first thing he encounters is the illuminated giant McDonald’s “M,” which he reasonably assumes is for Mephistopheles.) In this regard, the film attains its full Burtonesque quality—with Barnabas as the ultimate outsider who finds himself in the midst of a family of a different kind of outsiders.

It also allows the film to be a nostalgic excursion into Burton’s own childhood—with the music, fads and peculiarities of that era. Its closest antecedent is Edward Scissorhands (1990)—which isn’t dissimilar in plot either—but there the time period is intentionally nebulous. Here, it’s fixed, and Burton uses the era to good advantage. Some of it is used for comic effect—a secret room filled with Elizabeth Collins Stoddard’s (Michelle Pfeiffer) macrame projects, Barnabas encountering 1970s curios like troll dolls and lava lamps etc.—but the film wisely eschews a tone of outright mockery. Sure, Barnabas assesses Alice Cooper (hired to play at his “happening”) as the “ugliest woman I’ve ever seen,” but he’s shown as having a taste for the music itself. And so, for that matter, is Burton, who shows a surprising ability—maybe equal to Wes Anderson—to use pop music to good effect. His use of the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” is brilliant, while Alice Cooper’s “The Ballad of Dwight Fry” isn’t far behind—nor, for that matter, is (God save us) the Carpenters’ “Top of the World.”

If Burton’s use of music is surprising here, so is the film’s casually sexy nature. Burton has always been one of film’s least sexual directors. With the exception of Big Fish (2003), sex in Burton films tends to be either brushed aside, or treated in a somewhat embarassingly leering high-school manner. Here, it’s fairly straightforward, though—perhaps tellingly—Barnabas’ great love, Victoria (Australian soap actress Bella Heathcote), is outside the action.

Is the film perfect? No, and I wish it was. It tends to go astray toward the end, once it drops the culture-clash aspect. In fact, if you look at the song list—apart from the Killers’ soundalike cover of the Raspberries’ “Go All the Way” over the ending credits—you’ll notice that the pop songs (along with most the period references) are in the first two-thirds of the film. The last section is almost all plot, and up until the very final scene,  the plot is the least interesting aspect of the film. It’s not bad—though there’s a clear sense of the screenplay having written itself into a corner and struggling to get out—but it’s certainly not in the same league as the rest of the movie. Still, I’d recommend it enthusiastically to Burton fans, if more cautiously to others. It’s the first mainstream release of the year that I’ll see a second time. Rated PG-13 for comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking.

 

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

18 thoughts on “Dark Shadows

  1. trexbytes

    I enjoyed the film but not this much. The best review I can say is that it is worth the price of a theater ticket. I do agree it is far better than the dreadful Alice in Wonderland.

  2. Reinaldo Pereira Elisei

    Hi, Mr. Hanke. It’s not the first time I write here, but it’s been a long time since I last did it. I always come here, though, as I find your reviews much more lucid than those written by other critics.
    I totally agree with you on everything you said here.
    Just after the first trailer was released, a bunch of people started crying over it. They said the same things I heard in 1989, when Burton’s Batman was released, which I’m not going to repeat here, as I’m sure you have heard the same things a thousand times.
    Well, every person is entitled to their opinion, of course, but I find it really curious that people think that films need to be faithful firstly to their source material, and not to themselves in the first place. I don’t know, but I think that if people like the source material so much (a book, a comic book, bubblegum cards), then they should stick with it! Another day I was talking to some people on a forum, and a guy was complaining that Burton ruined Mars Attacks! because he was not faithful to the story told on the back of the cards!!!!!! What the f… does that mean???? The guy was complaining because Burton wasn’t faithful to bubblegum cards!!!! Oh, my God!!!!
    I used to enjoy Dark Shadows as a kid (it didn’t air for a very long time here in Brazil), but as a Burton fan, and as a film lover, I really wanted to watch a Burton film in the first place.
    Then we have the opposite side of the spectrum, it being those who complain that Burton is too faithful to himself (one critic even said this film is Burton’s homage to himself), and this renders the film un-original.
    I think the fact that critics are complaining that this film lacks originality is baffling!!
    The Avengers is 10 times more predictable than this film, and that was not considered a negative aspect of the film. One of my teenage students, with his pants all wet in ecstasy after watching The Avengers, asked me whether I was going to watch it or not. I told him this: “Ok. I’ll tell you what I think the story told in this film is about, and if I’m wrong, I’ll go watch it.” I told him the story, and I was right. So I didn’t go see it.
    At the very least, if you want to know what happens in Dark Shadows you have to watch the film…
    Well, I can’t write more now. Gotta go, but I’ll come back.
    See ya.

  3. Ken Hanke

    I enjoyed the film but not this much. The best review I can say is that it is worth the price of a theater ticket. I do agree it is far better than the dreadful Alice in Wonderland.

    Yes, but while I was disappointed — at least in many respects — I wouldn’t call Alice in Wonderland “dreadful.”

  4. Ken Hanke

    I find your reviews much more lucid than those written by other critics.

    Well, I can’t ask for better than that.

    I find it really curious that people think that films need to be faithful firstly to their source material, and not to themselves in the first place. I don’t know, but I think that if people like the source material so much (a book, a comic book, bubblegum cards), then they should stick with it!

    The overall problem is that an adaptation — however far off the original — doesn’t actually do anything to the original. It’s still right there, but in the case of Dark Shadows it seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to the trailer. The hardcore fans of the show I know have all pretty much loved the film — no matter how skeptical they were before seeing it.

    as a Burton fan, and as a film lover, I really wanted to watch a Burton film in the first place.

    That’s where I am. But I understand that other people have their own baggage and their own way of looking at it. I was frankly just as — or more — encouraged by the bad reviews as I was by the positive ones. When people start off from the perspective that the fact that it’s a Tim Burton film is an immediate negative — especially if Depp’s on board — then I figure they’re looking for something other than what I am.

    • Reinaldo Pereira Elisei

      Once again, you’re right. I remember when the musical version of Hairspray was about to be released and I read a review in which the critic said that it “destroyed” the original John Waters film. I asked myself “How???” I still have my DVD right here. Adam Shankman didn’t come to my house, rushed into my living room and broke my DVD into thousands of tiny little pieces. The original film is stil there, so where does this “destroyed the original” story come from? I know people have the right to have their own opinion, but this is just silly.

  5. Xanadon't

    I’m very angry that I haven’t seen this yet. Is it abnormal to be a little bit resentful toward a perfectly fun and enjoyable vacation because it prevented me from seeing a new Burton film in its opening days?

    Happy to learn that I have a new Burton book to look forward to also!

  6. Ken Hanke

    I read a review in which the critic said that it “destroyed” the original John Waters film.

    John Waters would certainly disagree with that. In fact, I mentioned to him once that Shankman’s film was longer than the old Waters dictate that no movie should be longer than 90 minutes — and he got defensive about how the newer version wasn’t at all boring. That said, I think the original is better, but so what? It’s still here.

  7. Ken Hanke

    Is it abnormal to be a little bit resentful toward a perfectly fun and enjoyable vacation because it prevented me from seeing a new Burton film in its opening days?

    I’m just not the person to ask a question like that!

  8. Ken Hanke

    Thanks. It’s of rather more interest as filmmaking than for young Burton’s acting. It also makes it clear why this has never surfaced as an extra on a DVD, since Tim and company heavily pilferred music from several Universal horror pictures from the 30s and 40s — not to mention a bit of footage. I doubt anyone’s ever thought it quite worth shelling out for the copyright violations. Interesting that the fascination with kitsch dates back this far.

  9. Bert

    What most impressed me about the film was the visual imagination. I can’t think of another director capable of doing an opening like Dark Shadows has. So many of the reviews of this film just p!$$ed me off. I think there is a real pack mentality to critics at times. They smell blood in the water and they swarm. I don’t think a lot of the negative reviews really got what Burton is doing here. It’s an imaginative fantasy/horror satire of 70′s America. I’m glad Hanke gets it.

  10. Ken Hanke

    I think there is a real pack mentality to critics at times. They smell blood in the water and they swarm.

    I think it’s as much a reflection of the pack mentality in people in general. And that’s something that’s only worsened with the business of review aggregators. For every critic that gets cited as being deliberately contrary in order to draw attention to himself, I’d be there’s a dozen who are going with the flow so as not to seem out of step. There’s also a certain amount of people — and critics, who actually are people — with their minds made up without actually seeing the movie. Am I sometimes guilty of that, too? Sure I am, but I went to see Love Me Tonight, Tommy, and Moulin Rouge! expecting to dislike them intensely. Well, it didn’t work out that way. On a smaller level, I was all set for The Avengers to be crap and was delighted when it wasn’t.

  11. Ken Hanke

    I don’t have a link at the moment, but if you haven’t see Depp as Tonto…let’s just say don’t be expecting Jay Silverheels.

  12. Dionysis

    “I don’t have a link at the moment, but if you haven’t see Depp as Tonto…let’s just say don’t be expecting Jay Silverheels.”

    Nope, haven’t seen him as Tonto yet, and I didn’t expect Jay Silverheels. I sort of expected any remake would use a real Native American actor, however. There are some out there.

  13. Ken Hanke

    There are none out there who can help get the financing, though. The combination of Depp and Gore Verbinski can. And Depp is supposedly partly of Cherokee descent.

  14. Dionysis

    Perhaps he is. He was quoted saying this in a magazine interview:

    “I guess I have some Native American (in me) somewhere down the line,

  15. Ken Hanke

    My memory is that he’s often just refused to talk about what his background is, saying it shouldn’t matter.

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