14 May 2012

I Go to the Summer Movies: Dark Shadows

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

Dark Shadows is the first victim of The Avengers. Next up is Battleship.

Contrary to the horrified reactions to the trailer, the state of Tim Burton’s creative career, and Warner Bros. willful promotional ignorance of the movie, Dark Shadows is not a massive disaster. It’s merely a dull flick that suffers from the most standard of bad-movie flaws: an uninteresting story. A few flashes of something better appear—although it is hard to determine what that something was—but this latest attempt to revive the 1966–71 Gothic daytime soap opera seems to drift in clouds of weed, lazily resorting to some broad yet humorless gags while forgetting that it has multiple plot strands that require attention. The film’s slogan really should’ve been: “We were going to make a compelling story for Dark Shadows, but instead we got high.”

Dark Shadows also isn’t much of a comedy; the reviled trailer sells the film as outrageous culture-clash humor, but these kind of jokes makes up only about a third of the film. The rest of it consists of stilted scenes of characters sitting down and talking about what isn’t happening in the rest of the movie.

At least there’s a great soundtrack, a surprisingly smooth meld of one of Danny Elfman’s better scores in recent memory with pleasing early ‘70s pop and rock. Another plus is a production design that feels more natural and sensuously subdued than what Tim Burton usually produces. If Burton was consciously experimenting with an understated Gothic décor and a more realistic vision of the 1970s than people expect of him, I applaud him for it. It works, and it’s one of the few aspects of Dark Shadows that does.

Another part that clicks is the first fifteen minutes, which cruelly sets up a subtle horror/comedy/drama that never happens and a storyline that vanishes as the purple haze of “oh, whatever” rises all around the movie. In late eighteenth-century Maine, Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), scion of a wealthy Liverpool family that has built a successful fishery business in the colonies, rejects the advances of Angelique (Eva Green), who also happens to be a witch. The jealous Angelique makes Barnabas’s love Josette (Bella Heathcote) throw herself from an ocean cliff. Angelique curses the whole family, transforms Barnabas into a vampire, and gets the townspeople to capture him and bury him alive.

Although this sequence in the past—the only remnant of the TV show’s frequent flashbacks and trips to earlier centuries—is done with the right gaudy Hammer horror flair, it isn’t what works best about the film’s opening. When time shifts two centuries later to 1972, we see young Victoria “Vicki” Winters (also played by Heathcote) riding a train to the town of Collinsport, where she has a job as a nanny for the Collins family. This was the original set-up for the soap opera, long before any supernatural elements entered the show, and Burton spends time giving this moment a luscious and sensually distant feel. The Moody Blues song “Nights in White Satin” flows beautifully with Vicki on the train as the credits appear. Vicki arrives at the drowsy town and continue on to the ancestral mansion of Collinwood, getting a ride with some spacey hippies in a sequence that astonishingly isn’t a lame comedy sledgehammer.

Vicki meets the remnants of the moldy Collins family: matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer); her live-in psychiatrist and sloppy lush Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter); Elizabeth’s listless brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller); Roger’s ten-year-old son David (Gulliver McGrath), who believes his mother’s ghost haunts the mansion; and Elizabeth’s teenage daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz), who is just way too cool for all these losers.

The establishing dinner scene between Vickie and the weird Collins clan weaves between dysfunctional family humor and setting up intriguing conflicts. The actors work well off each other, and the possibilities for that interesting “other Dark Shadows movie” are laid out for the audience on the dusty dining room table.

But nothing comes from all this establishing work. Victoria Winters is not the driving focus of Dark Shadows, despite all indications from this opening that she is. The movie criminally forgets about her for enormous stretches, but she has company: the movie forgets about all its plots, and the characters turn as listless as Roger Collins.
 Barnabas returns to Collinwood after unlucky construction workers accidentally break him free. The “fish-out-of-water” humor starts and everything else stops. Thought some of these characters might turn out to be interesting? Too bad, they all have nothing to do. It is up to Depp and Eva Green as the immortal Angelique to try to drag Dark Shadows along, and even their conflict gets sidelined in the lazy juggling of the different plot strands.

The number of storylines in Dark Shadows work well for an ongoing soap opera or a drama with a better script; lazily arranged in round-robin format for across two hours, none of them go anywhere. Barnabas trying to resurrect the family’s fishery against a rival company under the control of the immortal Angelique. Victoria’s connection to Barnabas’s dead love Josette. Dr. Hoffman’s fascination with vampirism and her twisted interest in Barnabas. David’s visions of his dead mother. Roger Collins’s terrible parenting. Carolyn’s fuzzy secret. All these plots and less are not explored as the film lurches toward its conclusion! And that conclusion is the same “fight in a burning house” that Hammer turned into a cliché even before 1972.

“Barnabas Collins vs. The ‘70s” consists of easy gags, like having pot-smoking flower children (who must have swiped their weed from the film crew) really groove on the heaviness of Barnabas’s two hundred-year “trip.” Most of the big jokes appear in the trailer: they weren’t funny there, and they don’t improve with context. The smaller moments of comedy work better. When Barnabas makes understated reactions to the pieces of ‘70s culture that have infiltrated Collinwood, they’re good for a chuckle. Depp’s confusion over a troll doll, an Operation game, and badminton rackets are his best bits of acting in the movie. Again, there’s that hint of the “something else” that Dark Shadows might have been.

The cast has great people in it, but nobody is great in it. Eva Green makes the best impression, but she has more to play with than anybody else, and Angelique is the most active character. It’s bizarre that Jackie Earle Haley, playing the mentally deficient groundskeeper of Collinswood, can’t do much more than be serviceable. Chloë Grace Moretz slides out of the film after some promising vamping early on. And poor Jonny Lee Miller: I know he’s in the film, but he doesn’t seem to actually appear in it. I only remember him leaving it. “Nothing in his role became him like the leaving it.” Thanks Shakespeare!

Even Alice Cooper is a disappointment playing himself. Oh, Christopher Lee pops up for a thankless one-scene role, although it is conceptually amusing to have him playing opposite a Dracula stand-in. The original Barnabas Collins, Jonathan Frid, who died this April, has a fast cameo in party scene, along with a few other original cast members.
I’m not familiar enough with the original TV edition of Dark Shadows to know how its hardcore fans will react to this latest iteration. From what I’ve watched of the soap opera (it streams on Netflix), I don’t think that Burton’s movie is a horrible travesty or mockery of it. It’s just not interesting or alive. Maybe having the crew accidentally wander into the frame, or camera silhouettes constantly falling over things would have livened things up. But since the original Dark Shadows was a soap opera that was all about following through on a tapestry plot lines, I have a feeling fans will feel cheated that Burton decided no plot lines were important.

So ends another attempt to resurrect Dark Shadows. Toss the soil on the coffin, fellas, and we’ll try again in another ten years.

My Summer Movie Scorecard
The Avengers . . . . . . . . . A
Dark Shadows . . . . . . . . . . C-

Next week: Who is going to scream “You sunk my Battleship!”?