“Hey, have you heard? Tim Burton and Johnny Depp did another film together.”
“Not again. This bromance is getting out of control. If they like each other so much why don’t they finally just get it on and leave us all in peace.”
“I think he’s already married to that actress who always turns up in his movies.”
“Of course he bloody is. Who can even remember how many films the two of them have made together anymore?!”
Of course, dear reader, we all know that the number of Depp/Burton collaborations to date is, in fact, eight (the number he made starring his wife is a slightly less obsessive 6). The latest being Burton’s big screen version of the cult gothic soap opera of the 60s and 70s, Dark Shadows. I was incredibly excited to see this film (even if it did take me about 7 months to actually get round to it). Not because of the connection with the show (as a child of the 80s/90s I only became aware of it thanks to this film) but because I unashamedly adore Tim Burton. Yes that’s right, dear friends, I am Murdocal and I’m a Burton-holic. I’ve started to discover a growing number of people who are quick to criticise his gothic genius and I simply don’t understand it. I realise that some of his films have missed the mark of late but, like Woody Allen, I remain loyal and naively go into every new Burton film believing it will be his best. So, like a child heading to bed on Christmas Eve, I sat down to watch full of an innocent hope that a distinctively dressed man would deliver the present I’d been dreaming of.
And there was so much potential. The trailer suggested this would be a dark, vampire-based comedy with an amazing cast and fantastic Burton-esque visuals. He cites the television series as one his first major inspirations and the film is full of opportunities for Burton to work his magic and pay homage. Opening in 18th Century Maine where Barnabas Collins, the only son of a family of fishing tycoons, spurns the affection of Angelique (Eva Green) who, unfortunately, turns out to be not only pissed off but also a witch. Needless to say she vows revenge on Barnabas and sets about ruining his life. Once his parents are out of the way she brings about the demise of the true object of his affection, Josette (Bella Heathcote). As a final insult to injury she prevents Barnabas from following his love to the afterlife by turning him into a vampire and burying him in a crate for 200 years. As opening sequences go, this sets the audience up for a great ride. The gothic styling is perfect and the performances by Depp and Green are exaggerated but on target with the necessary sensibility.
The mood changes once a strange twist of fate releases Barnabas from his grave and into the bright and confusing world of the 1970s. Much of the humour depends on the oft seen ‘fish out of water’ trope as Barnabas gets used to his modern setting. For his part, Depp plays the vampire at odds with himself remarkably well. And who would expect anything else? If there’s one person who knows exactly how to bring the Burton it’s Depp. That he happens to be a fan of the original series also helps. His own Barnabas is a charming and often amusing creature who finds himself dealing with a world he could never have dreamed of.
As a central character you couldn’t really ask for better but it is still not enough to bring together the many plot strands that demand our attention. Unfortunately, it’s a simple case of too many plots spoil the broth: Barnabas’ mission to revitalise the family business; his romance with the new governess (significantly also played by Heathcote); bringing together his crumbling family; and his connection with their live-in psychiatrist (Helena Bonham Carter). All of these stories are given some time to introduce themselves before being dropped into cinematic oblivion. The mysterious governess who is set up to be a character of major significance is absent for much of the plot and is never given the chance to explore the part she has to play in the grand scheme of things. The remains of the Collins family are portrayed by an array of big names but, again, they are never given the chance to show off their collected talent. Michelle Pfeiffer plays the head of the family but, for the most part, you can’t help but feel that she is just going through the motion. As are Johnny Lee Miller, in his role as her sleazy brother, and Helena Bonham Carter, playing the quirky Dr Hoffman, who both float through their roles in a truly forgettable manner.
There is a slight ray of sunshine thanks to the Collins family’s very own wild-child daughter, played by one of the few teenagers I don’t automatically detest and fear, Chloë Grace Moretz. (Before I go on, I have to admit that I both love Moretz and am utterly jealous of her. At 9 years my junior, she is already better presented, more grown-up and has a greater understanding of how clothes work than I ever will. Bloody youths.) She very much embraces her 70s teenager with her dreamy/stoned demeanour being broken up by moments of rage and brattiness. She is funny in a dark, sarcastic and slightly emo way and is my favourite character in the whole film. Although once again, Seth Grahame-Smith’s script doesn’t give her, or the equally compelling Gulliver McGrath, the chance to get to grips with the character. They are awkwardly shoehorned into the action when it is necessary and then forgotten about when it all becomes a bit of a hassle.
What is worse than this hodgepodge of storylines, horribly edited down and squashed together to fit into a more audience friendly 113 minute running time, is the almost schizophrenic tone of the whole thing. The opening sequence is reminiscent of Sleepy Hollow in its gothic and, at times, gruesome brilliance but this is brushed aside to bring in a light-hearted comedic melodrama about a vampire from the 1700s failing to understand television and lava lamps (lol). Then we suddenly go back to a much more serious, dark film about killer vampires and murderous witches. It is a film that doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be and the writer/director combo never quite tie together the comedy, horror, family drama and Gothic romance into a complete picture. This being the main problem with trying to edit down an entire television series into one 2 hour film: having to get across all of the information you need to and creating a complete and exciting story. It is never quite achieved but there are certain moments of brilliance within each of the separate factions.
A brilliance that is mirrored in the films visuals. The thing you can rely on with Tim Burton is to make a visually beautiful film. The sets are fantastically put together and the styling is mesmerising. The fantastic Collins manor has been lovingly created with great attention to detail and is worthy of all the praise that Barnabas includes in his return speech. The vampire himself is a triumph of costume and make-up. With Depp channelling his best Nosferatu complete with pale white face and nails with the handy ability to dig grooves in a wooden floor, Barnabas is in keeping with the traditional Burton style of quirky and partly creepy outsider. Also witnessed in the terrifying Angelique who is decently played by Eva Green, despite her ridiculous accent (unless I’m mistaken and that is actually a great example of an American accent). Green clearly had a great time whilst playing the witch scorned and provides a slight breath of fresh air in the midst of a group of actors who don’t really seem to realise they are in the middle of filming.
So this may not be the film that I had hoped for when I saw the trailer all those months ago but, you know what, it wasn’t bad. (To quote Peter Bradshaw, as I so often do nowadays, it was “whelming.”) In no way does it come close to Burton at his best but, if you look hard enough, you can certainly find a great deal more in his repertoire that is inferior. There is a lot to like in this film but you can’t help but get the impression that, initially, there was a lot more. Are we viewing the director’s labour of love that simply got out of hand and suffered in order to see a release? I can understand completely. In my second year of university I wrote an essay that ended up being double the word limit. In a mad attempt to cut it down I’m pretty sure my sentences stopped making grammatical sense. So it’s ok Tim. I’ve been there… and do you know what? I still have faith.