Quick Take: Dark Shadows doesn't know what kind of film it wants to be, which is an absolute shame.
There was a point in my life were I anxiously awaited any and everything that Tim Burton created. His sense of whimsy in the midst of darkness always fascinated me. Over the years, though, his films have seemed to be less about creative storytelling and movie magic and more so simply servicing the “Tim Burton” brand upon one’s local cinema once or twice a year.
It’s with this that I went into Dark Shadows, not quite knowing what to expect or which form of Tim Burton I would be getting, especially with knowing that it’s a remake of the beloved 60’s soap opera of the same name. The answer is, a little bit of both.
The film begins quite strong and surprisingly dramatic, telling the story of how in the late 1700’s, Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) came to lose everything, including his mortality, simply due to the jealousy of Angelique (Eva Green), his family’s maid that also happened to be a witch. Despite some various flings between them, Barnabas did not love her, so she cursed his family, loved ones and Barnabas himself as retribution for her unrequited love. It’s not long before Angelique has the entire town of Collinsworth afraid of the monster that Barnabas has become and, rather than kill him, Angelique has him buried alive to dwell in this everlasting torment. Cue the opening credits.
A quick jump to the 1970’s and the film introduces the rest of the cast. Elizabeth Collins (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz) have taken residence in the old Collins mansion alongside Elizabeth’s brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), his son David (Gulliver McGrath) and David’s live-in Psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helen Bonham Carter). As with any family, there’s plenty of dysfunction to go around but far from enough wealth to keep them afloat, not to mention Carolyn’s increasingly peculiar behavior and David’s belief that his dead mother is still alive somehow at the bottom of the ocean in which she drowned in. There’s also the family’s latest addition, Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote) a new nanny of sorts for the children who carries her own bit of mystery around her.
It is not long before, thanks to some random construction workers, that Barnabas is freed from his 200 year prison. He is quite thankful for his new found freedom, but, as anyone that’s been imprisoned for 200 years will tell you, you surely build up quite an appetite. Thus, Barnabas makes quick work of all of the workers, draining them to their last drop of blood.
Up to this point, Dark Shadows is quite good. Every trailer for the film painted it as this hokey, corny joke-a-thon that not only seemed a disservice to the original source material, but also to all of the talent involved. As I watched, the film had already not shied away from death, dysfunction or debauchery. Coupled with a well established mood and atmosphere, I was utterly quite surprised and kind of kicking myself for not seeing the film sooner.
Then, Barnabas gets to town.
Immediately, the film goes from being stark and dramatic into a fish out of water tale that just feels beneath everyone involved. “Oh, look how cute the 200 year old vampire is! He doesn’t understand our modern conventions! ” is the type of fare that just comes off as hackney and almost ruins the whole film as it continues until the bitter end.
While not completely ruining the film, it does begin the steady spiral of disjointedness that the plot takes from here. After making his way back to his old home and being introduced as a long lost relative of some sort, Barnabas insists the family fishing and canning business be put back into action, much to the chagrin of Angelique, who is also still alive and running her own fishing and canning business. Angelique’s love for Barnabas has not waivered either, and she’ll stop at nothing to make sure he is hers, no matter the cost.
Now, throw on top of that Victoria, who looks exactly like Barnabas’ past love Josette, so he is immediately in love with her, although from here on out Victoria only shows up in the movie when it’s necessary. There’s also Dr. Julia, who has her own intentions in regards to Barnabas and his immortality. Let’s not forget the random party out of nowhere that even includes a performance from Alice Cooper. Barnabas also has a moment where he’s discussing love with a pack of hippies and, upon hearing all he’s wanted to here, gives in to his vampiric cravings once more. Basically, there’s five movies going on at once, all making the other one suffer.
The performances are pretty great, especially Depp when he isn’t having to do the “fish out of water” routine. I mean, he even does that well, but that’s just a testament to his talent and not the source material. Bella Heathcote’s Victoria was an early standout in the film and it’s a shame that the writers didn’t seem to know what to do with her, much the same as Jonny Lee Miller whose Uncle Roger is gone before you know it.
I will say that as far as the look, feel and cinematic experience of the film, Burton didn’t a pretty stand up job. He manages to set a dark and moody atmosphere that feels not necessarily fresh, but doesn’t feel regurgitated from one of his other films. The opening of the movie is quite impressive visually and gave a glimmer of the creative man still residing within the Tim Burton Factory of movie-making. I hope that creative side gets set free again soon.
Warner has outfitted this Blu-ray, DVD and UltraViolet combo pack release of Dark Shadows with a MPEG-4 1080p AVC encode that maintains the films darkish nature without sacrificing detail. The film itself is filtered and washed into a dark, muted state, but the transfer shows off the fine detail still on display, even amidst all the darkness. Facial features in particular seem to have a pop to them, despite their immediately dour appearance. Colors shine as much as they can within the subdued palette.
On the audio side of things, Dark Shadows features a DTS-HD 5.1 mix which takes full advantage of one’s system making for quite an immersive experience. Sounds move through various speakers helping pad out the movie’s already finely built atmosphere while dialogue is maintained front and center and is quite clear and pleasing. The songs in the film are where the full mix really shines. Whether it be one of Elfman’s instrumental pieces or one of the many songs of the time period, the music takes full advantage of the entire sound space and really fills out the HD package.
Beyond the Feature
As far as extras go, it’s fairly slim pickings. The packaging teases a ‘Maximum Movie Mode,’ but is in actuality just a PiP (Picture in Picture) track that can be played along with the film or, more preferably, can be watched on its own in a section labeled ‘Focal Points’ (HD, 30 min.). This series of vignettes goes behind the scenes and explores much of the creative process, from locales to costuming and the quite effective makeup effects all-around. Quite informative and well paced for being so short. There’s also five ‘Deleted Scenes’ (HD, 6 min.) which are all fairly decent and seem to have just been excised due to time constraints.
Bottom line, Dark Shadows doesn’t know what type of film it wants to be. It brings in many of the narratives from the show, but doing them all at once spreads it all very thin. There’s comedy, horror, a surprising bit of sexuality and even a big action movie ending. All of these could have made for a great film, but with so many cogs at work none of them feel like a worthwhile payoff.
The picture and audio package do wonders at maintaining and pushing the films overall atmosphere. The extras, while incredibly light, are informative and will be quite appreciated for any fan of the film. Overall, I think Dark Shadows on Blu-ray is worth a look. I just wish Burton and the writers had had a better sense of what story they really wanted to tell.
– Matt Hardeman
Shop for Dark Shadows on Blu-ray for a discounted price at Amazon.com (October 2, 2012 release date).