Friday, May 11, 2012

Dark Shadows (Movie Review)

Dark Shadows  (2012; Warner Bros.   Directed by Tim Burton.  Screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith)

This is a film that I have been eagerly anticipating for years, ever since I first learned of Tim Burton's and Johnny Depp's respective involvement.  But as today's long-awaited release date drew nearer, I began to fear that I was setting myself up for a terrible disappointment.  That's largely because the official trailer made this Dark Shadows seem like a pale reflection of the beloved 60's serial.  Emphasizing the humor of a situation in which Depp's protagonist finds himself a centuries-old stranger in a strange land of 1972, the trailer suggested that Burton was shooting for a campy vamp variation on Austin Powers.

After today's viewing, I am happy to report that that trailer significantly misrepresented the tone and approach of the film.

To be sure, there are comedic moments, but they are interspersed with a deft touch and do not stand in the way of Gothic melodrama.  Depp is no mere caricature of the original Barnabas Collins (played by Jonathan Frid), bringing dignity and gravitas to the role of a cursed, reluctant, yet sometimes-savage vampire.  His Barnabas, who is not above opening throats (starting with those of the work crew who accidentally uncover his buried and enchained coffin) when the opportunity to slake his unholy thirst presents itself, is more Sweeney Todd than Mad Hatter.  Nor does the film yield its titular tenebrousness to the colorful post-hippy/pre-disco era in which it is set; the scenery is replete with impressive gloom, from the rocky shore at the foot of Widow's Hill to the sprawling, labyrinthine Collinwood manor (where much of the action takes place).  The latter is perhaps the most interestingly-detailed manse (e.g. a fireplace mantel adorned with audibly-baying wolf figurines) to appear on the silver screen since Hill House in 1963's The Haunting.

To be fair, this is not a perfect film.  Bella Heathcote's character--Collinwood governess/Barnabas love interest Victoria Winters--is under-developed (she seems to disappear from the story at times), and thus greatly overshadowed by Eva Green's vengeful witch, Angelique.  Green is a wonderful villainess here, but her supernatural powers are almost ridiculously extensive.  At times, she operates more like an X-Men mutant than a traditional hex-slinger.

Angelique's devious abilities are put on full display in a spectacular and catastrophic climax in which the witch battles Barnabas and the other defenders of Collinwood.  In the course of this extended showdown, some dark secrets about the Collins clan come to light, including the revelation of an inner monstrousness that might seem to the uninitiated to come out of left field but is actually a clever riff on a plotline from the original daytime soap.

Burton's Dark Shadows can stand alone for modern audiences, but will be best appreciated by those already familiar with the trappings of the TV show.  No doubt there will be some stubborn loyalists who denounce the new film for not being exactly like the serial they recall so fondly, but when taken for what it really is--both a loving homage and an inventive reimagining--Dark Shadows proves a wonderful success.

And based on a surprising twist of one of the old story elements (involving Dr. Julia Hoffman's treatment of Barnabas's vampirism), the door is left wide open for a sequel.  I look forward to such a follow-up just as much as I did this latest example of Burton-Depp Gothic movie magic.

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