Mania Review: Dark Shadows -

Mania Review: Dark Shadows

Mania Grade: D

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  • Starring: Johnny Depp, Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer, Bella Heathcoate, Chloe Moretz, Gulliver McGrath, and Jackie Earle Haley
  • Written by: Seth Grahame-Smith
  • Directed by: Tim Burton
  • Studio: Warner Bros
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Run Time: 113 minutes
  • Series:

Mania Review: Dark Shadows

The idea has become the institution

By Rob Vaux     May 11, 2012

 Tim Burton always walked a razor’s edge between genius and self-indulgence. The visionary nature of his early films struck a chord with audiences and quickly made him one of the most bankable directors in Hollywood. Over time, however, his formula became as creaky and overused as the conventions he initially overthrew: exquisite production values propping up the same tired story of lonely outsiders and tragic monsters. In many cases, such as 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, the visual splendor and occasional great performance counteracted his rambling would-be narrative. But each film inched closer and closer to Hollywood’s traditional blockbuster model of spectacle over humanity. Even worse, his shtick grew predictable right down to the timing of the choral arias in Danny Elfman’s scores.

Dark Shadows absorbs all of the bad karma of Burton’s previous films, then releases it in a toxic afterbirth of a motion picture. It grabs heaping fistfuls of Hollywood’s various obsessions-du-jour – TV remakes, vampires, potential franchise starters – and expects its resident auteur to make them all work. He fails on levels I wouldn’t have imagined possible. Though reportedly a huge fan of the 1960s soap opera, Burton can’t decide whether he wants to honor it, update it, send it up, or cannibalize it for spare parts. He tries to do all of them at once, and turns it into a disaster of breathtaking proportions.

It becomes even more unbearable in the face of The Avengers, which taught a master’s class on how to fuse multiple narratives into an organic whole. Dark Shadows features just as many characters in its bizarre family of Gothic outcasts, but treats them like spinning plates rather than interweaving threads. As we rush back and forth between them, our impetus to care drops to nothing, replaced by disappointment and irritation.

Johnny Depp ostensibly serves to hold it all together as reluctant vampire Barnabus Collins. Cursed by a jealous witch (Eva Green) in 18th century Maine, he emerges from his coffin 200 years later to find a world transformed. It’s 1972, bell bottoms are all the rage, and his once proud fishing magnate family now lies on the verge of destruction. That same witch is behind it all – buying up rival fishing canneries and running Collins’ descendants out of business – which sets the stage for a rematch between the two supernatural rivals.

But wait! It seems that Barnabus also engaged in a doomed love affair back in the day, and the ghost of his lady love still haunts the imposing family estate. There’s another ghost too, as well as a new nanny (Bella Heathcoate) who catches Barnabus’s eye and who may or may not serve as a conduit for both unquiet spirits. But wait! There’s also the question of Barnabus’s vampirism, which the family’s alcoholic shrink (Helena Bonham Carter) thinks she can cure but which she actually uses to further a sinister agenda of her own. But wait! There’s also the little boy (Gulliver McGrath) who everyone thinks is crazy, the teenage girl (Chloe Moretz) with a third-act revelation apparently pulled straight out of the screenwriter’s ass, the deadbeat brother (Jonny Lee Miller) constantly scamming money even though he doesn’t need it, and for some unknown reason, Jackie Earle Haley.

As sudsy intrigue sufficient for 1000 episodes worth of soaps, it all does fine. As a two-hour movie, it will give you headaches. Dark Shadows shows no inclination to craft them into a narrative engine, content instead to fling them at us in haphazard chunks before leaping madly to the next subplot. The question of what fish canning has to do with undead blood vendettas – and countless other issues just like it – never enter the movie’s head. An attempt to infuse either overt irony or greater importance to such tidbits would have done wonders. Dark Shadows, unfortunately, is too concerned to giving the principles enough screen time to deal with even the vaguest hints of upkeep.

Burton, always more painter than writer, simply can’t keep up with the story’s requirements. Nor can he settle on a consistent tone with which to counter his narrative shortcomings. Lame jokes and corny delivery compete with more subtle campiness, all of them running straight into the overtly serious doomed romance at which he normally excels. The cast dives into eccentricities with desperate abandon: led by Depp who vacillates between jokey and tragic with the same vagueness that plagues the rest of the film. Green does better – I could watch that chick uncork The Crazy all day – but she’s fighting for breathing room the whole time. Carter lets her character’s drunkenness overwhelm her, while Michelle Pfeiffer – playing the Collins clan matriarch – is content to simply mark time and wait for the whole thing to end.

As a last recourse, Dark Shadows papers over its flaws with sterling costumes and production design. It looks damn sexy and Burton pays close attention to the various visual nooks and crannies of his world. Even here, however, ennui eventually creeps in: numbed by the director’s numerous excursions into the same basic material. Wholesale change may be impossible at this stage in his career, but he needs to grow past the confines that have no completely boxed him in. Dark Shadows stands as a testament to the failings of his vision, with none of the successes to back them up. It leaves the auteur lost in a maze of his own making… and the audience wondering if he might ever find his way out again. 


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whiteandnerdy75 5/11/2012 12:07:48 AM

Geez, I thought it wouldn't be great judging by the previews, but a 'D'?  Guess I'll avoid this one like the plague...

doublec 5/11/2012 2:22:12 AM

It's BarnabAs, not BarnabUs.

dalgoda 5/11/2012 3:59:40 AM

There hasn't been a really good Burton movie in a long while and this looks to continue that streak based on trailers and reviews.  I'll wait for video.

Dazzler 5/11/2012 4:22:42 AM

Looks good enough for me.  There is worse crap out there. 

DaForce1 5/11/2012 4:52:15 AM

 Rob, actually it's been stated in more than one place that Burton hasn't watched a single episode of the original tv series, just like JJ Abrahms never watched a single episode or movie of Star Trek. It looked like crap from the beginning, so this is really no great surprise.

heath0920 5/11/2012 5:02:00 AM

Dalgoda, I think what the reviewer is saying is that Burton has continued to make HIS style of movies. Using Johnny Depp so much as his star, you know the kind of actor that Depp is and the performances Burton brings out of him. If you like that visual style, if you like his humour, or if you lke what Depp does in a Burton performance, you'll be satisfied by the result. But if you're hoping this film is a gane changer or has Burton changing his film style, you're going to be dissapointed.

I'm curious how it's going to play to the teen set who devour vampires right now. Depp probably isn't their heart throb and this isn't your "Vampire lord falls in love with mortal lady" romance that's all the rage. Will it capture their interests? 

hanso 5/11/2012 5:06:24 AM

 Yeah it looked like crap but still might end up seeing it at the theatres, I dig Depp.

wish 5/11/2012 5:10:18 AM

Well, can't say I'm surprised at all, this was getting panned from the beginning and when the first pics showed up here everyone was pretty together in thier prediction.  I still think I can enjoy this and plan on giving it a shot.

I watched Johnny Depp on Jimmy Kimmel the other night, it was awesome, it reminded me how much I admire him as a person and an actor so it made me want to see this a tiny bit more than I did before.......besides.......we got a few weeks to go until Prometheus and I don't really plan to see anything else in the meantime........

jedibanner 5/11/2012 5:27:50 AM

Depp is a class act and his acting is always beyond great. But he alone can't save a train wreck and this movie was pure 1000000% crap and stupid beyond crap, only one movie comes to mind that was as bad if not worse and it's the first non-cartoon GI Joe movie.

In this day and age, there are new ways to watch movies and this one isn't even worth the time to wait for.

lusiphur 5/11/2012 6:04:36 AM

 So you saw it jedibanner?

I was excited for this until I saw Burton decided to go for laughs.  Maybe I'll watch it on Netflix streaming at some point.

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