Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Review - Dark Shadows

Picture the scene:

Johnny Depp has popped round to Tim Burton's Hampstead flat for dinner, followed (one imagines) by Cognac and Cigars in the Billiard Room. Mrs Burton, otherwise known as Helena Bonham Carter, has popped over from her flat next door to join the proceedings.

Between courses conversation turns from Ms Bonham Carter's recent OSCAR nomination for her turn as HRH Queen Elizabeth in The King's Speech to future projects. I've had this idea, says Tim... As the meal progresses, the idea grows and develops - Depp is employed as the lead actor and has volunteered himself as Producer, Bonham Carter has agreed to a supporting role (as long as it isn't too weird, one doesn't want to be typecast as oneself!) and Burton has put in a call to Danny Elfman asking for a score.

Dark Shadows is, in other words, a very typical Tim Burton film. As such it has had a marmite effect on audiences and critics. Unlike the salty spread, however, I very much liked the film - although it is far from perfect or Burton's best.

I must confess to not knowing much about the film prior to my cinema visit, having only read the briefest of synopsis. It is based on a 1960's TV soap-opera which is described as "Gothic" although the introduction of supernatural elements only arose after some months and the central character of the film arrived after a year.

That character is vampire Barnabus Collins. 200 years after being confined to a chained coffin by a spurned lover who had killed his parents and his True Love, he is unexpectedly set free by construction workers. Returning to his family home, he finds that his descendants have fallen upon hard times and the family fishing and canning business is being pushed out of town by Angelbay, presided over by Angie; a beautiful ambitious blonde it would do well not to cross.

Barnabus resolves to resurrect the fortunes of the family, drawing on resources hidden in the family vaults and the support of the modern family's matriarch, Elizabeth. The Dark Shadows that have blighted generations of Collins' are, however, never far away...

The look of the film recreates in live action something akin to Burton's animations, in particular Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride. Indeed, in places one is almost transported to those worlds rather than the Eastern Seaboard of the States in 1972.

This setting of a vampire story - and Barnabus is very much a vampire in the Hammer Horror mould - in the recent past is part of the film's appeal. Whilst Burton can play around with the Gothic imagery of the Collins' house and it's inhabitants, the town and other scenes can be portrayed in a (slightly) more naturalistic way.

The setting also gives the film it's main conceit - the merging of a Comedy of Manners (How to woo the woman with the best child-bearing hips?) with a gothic horror story of vampires, werewolves, curses and witches. For the record, it turns out that the best way to woo said female is to hold a "happening" with Alice Cooper as the entertainment.

Depp gives an understated performance as Barnabus Collins, with just the right level of camp and none of the excess of Captain Jack Sparrow. Bonham Carter also turns the histrionics down a notches in her role as Psychiatrist Dr Hoffman.

Eva Green has gained, rightly, great plaudits for her playing of Angie - a character which is given great scope to develop through the film. For me, though, Michelle Pfeiffer was a revelation as Elizabeth Collins. I'm not sure the last time I saw her in a film but she has matured into an actress with dignity and gravitas.

Bella Heathcote is also good as Victoria Winters (governess to the son of Johnny Lee Miller's character, Roger Collins) and bearing a startling resemblance to the "young" Barnabus' True Love. There is also a welcome cameo from another Burton regular, Sir Christopher Lee in a sit-down role befitting of his 90 years.

Unusually for a Burton film, there is no central theme of repression by and liberation from a Father figure. Indeed Jonny Lee Miller's weak father (the antithesis of, say, Christopher Lee's Dr Wilbur Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) seems to be there to make up the numbers and gender balance initially before being hastily shown the door around 2/3rds of the way through. It was a superfluous and unnecessary role and one of the flaws of the film.

Instead of themes of paternal discipline and neglect, the film's central themes are love, revenge and the extent to which they feed off each other in a mutually symbiotic relationship. Somewhat predictably, it will all end badly - the only question is how much collateral damage will be sustained by others. 

The film has a number of laugh out loud moments even if it is lacking in substance. But substance isn't everything and sometimes one just wants to be entertained. To check one's brains in at the door and be subsumed into another world. It seems to me that there are worse places to be than the world of Tim Burton's mind - and films with more substance I'd enjoy much less.


1 comment:

Raybeard said...

I'd half-intended to see this film but in my attempt to be more discriminatory (for boring but ever-present money reasons) this one fell by the wayside. But as some of those films which I HAVE seen have hardly been pleasantly memorable experiences, I now wish this had been chosen instead of some others. Additionally, the mention in your succeeding blog of songs on the soundtrack promises a positive attraction - apart from those '(K)nights in White Satin' which, over so many years, to me sounds dreary and boring after multiple repeated hearings. Still, maybe it's not too late to catch the film as it's still around here and there.