Friday, May 11, 2012

You Can't Force Camp: Dark Shadows

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

It seems like I've always been aware of the TV series "Dark Shadows," even if I'd never seen an episode during its original run, (1966-1971), or during any of its subsequent syndication and re-airings. But the fact that it was a daily soap opera set in a supernatural world meant I always respected the show, even if I had never actually seen it.

So I can't say if Tim Burton's revamped Dark Shadows is something that will please existing fans, although I have a suspicion true fans might get a little more out of the film's story and characters, since more often than not it feels like there's a lot of "filling in the blanks" that needs to be done for both.

The film has a fabulously gothic opening, in which we learn the history of Barnabas Collins, a young boy from Liverpool, brought to the New World in the 1750s. His wealthy family establishes roots in Maine, building a fortune on shipping and fishing, and an appropriately garish manor to go with it. As Barnabas grows older, (and turns into Johnny Depp), he catches the eye of the house maid Angelique, (Eva Green, who is terrific throughout), and they have an affair. But his real affections lay with the noble-blooded and fair Josette (Bella Heathcote), and he chooses her over Angelique. Alas, he chooses the wrong woman to spurn, as Angelique turns out to be a witch, and in revenge, she turns Barnabas into a vampire, and buries him in the ground for all eternity.

Or, at least until the grave is accidentally dug up almost 200 years later, in 1972. Barnabas makes his way back to Collinwood Manor, only to find the place in dusty disrepair, and home to some broke and disillusioned distant relatives: Matriarch Elizabeth, (Michelle Pfeiffer), and her teenage daughter Carolyn, (Chloƫ Grace Moretz); Elizabeth's brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), and his "disturbed" young son David, (Gulliver McGrath); David's psychiatrist Julia, (Helena Bonham Carter); the drunken groundskeeper, Willie, (Jackie Earle Haley); and, finally, the nanny Victoria, who also happens to be the spitting image of Barnabas's long-lost love, Josette.

Barnabas strikes a deal with Elizabeth: She keeps his identity secret, (he's not a 200-year-old-vampire! He's just from the Old Country!), and Barnabas helps the family rebuild its fortune and power by taking back business that was stolen by that witch, Angelique, who is now the town's richest woman. Yep, she's still alive, and still has the hots for Barnabas, and is none-to-pleased to learn that he still has his eye on another woman.

What starts out as gothic fun turns into not-so-funny comedy once Barnabas arises in 1972. Most of the film's humor is centered on the vampire's fish-out-of-water predicament, with frequent shots of Depp doing the startled and aghast looks he seems to utilize in every single movie he's in, paired with people staring at him like he's some kind of ghastly pale vampire from another era. (Oh. Right.)

By playing up the comedic aspects of this kind of character, Depp drains him of any real menace. While Barnabas does savagely kill people in the movie, he's never actually scary.

I think some of the appeal of the original "Dark Shadows" must come from its camp factor. It was an incredibly cheap show, in a genre, (soap operas), not known for subtlety, and, when watched now, I imagine it's hard not to laugh at it.

But you can't force camp. Forced camp is invariably just bad comedy, and Dark Shadows the movie is full of forced camp.

I tend to have the same problem with all of Tim Burton's movies. The are invariably beautiful, full of amazing sets, effects, and costumes; they're a feast for the eye. But the man does not know how to tell a story well, and Dark Shadows suffers from the same problems that plague so many of his other movies.

Characters are introduced, disappear completely for long stretches, and then end up having absolutely no usefulness within the story, (if I were Jonny Lee Miller, I'd be pissed). Important family secrets are revealed with no build-up, resulting in incredulity instead of surprise. David, the "disturbed" young boy, is supposedly recovering from the death of his mother, but just who she is, and what she's been doing to him remains a mystery until a last minute reveal that doesn't make much sense.

And, as in most Tim Burton movies, the ending feels rushed and unsatisfying, as if, with 20 minutes of running time left on the clock, he suddenly realizes he'd better speed things along and finish the story.

There are a few laughs here and there, (most of which can be seen in the trailer), and I had fun looking at the groovy 1970's costumes, and listening to the 1970's soundtrack, (Alice Cooper makes an appearance as himself, performing at a Collinswood "happening). But it's not enough to recommend a movie that ultimately feels like a really expensive pilot for a series that's unlikely to get picked up.

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