Film Review: Dark Shadows

In my early high school days, I frequently and proudly cited Tim Burton as my favorite director. As a kid interested in theatrics, melodrama, and darkness, his juxtaposing of vibrant, colorful, and whimsical images with those frightening and grotesque captivated me.

Beetlejuice is a classic. The original Batman is an almost flawless rendering of the superhero legend. Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas are visionary. Ed Wood pays homage to an eccentric and celebrated director with perfect casting and acting. When Planet of the Apes hit theaters I started getting confused. And the dance scenes from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory left me completely baffled, especially since the original film was a timeless piece of cinema.

Lately, it seems that Burton keeps missing the mark, and even fans are left unable to follow his line of thinking. His newest picture, Dark Shadows, draws from the late sixties television program of the same name and follows cursed vampire Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), who is accidentally released from 200 years of imprisonment, waking up to find himself ill-adjusted in the atmosphere of 1972.

Although Dark Shadows doesn’t achieve what Burton has previously managed, it does blend some of the best aspects of his usual tricks, as it takes several steps back toward the Tim Burton of old. As always, the cast staggers: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Eva Green to name a few. Like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Planet of the Apes, and Alice in Wonderland, Burton has chosen a well-loved piece of culture to revamp with Dark Shadows. However, the choice is immediately riper for success because the source material is further removed and possesses a more cult status. Dark Shadows, while not nearly as celebrated as other works Burton has reinterpreted, boasts significant achievements such as the sci-fi/fantasy show with the second most episodes ever at 1,225, outranking Star Trek. It’s big enough that everyone who was alive during its lifetime will fondly recall it, but old enough that many of the viewers of the new film version won’t.

Another attribute that leads to the film’s success is its understated comedy. When I saw the trailer for Dark Shadows, I cringed. Here we go again, I thought. The scenes looked outrageous and slapstick, and I don’t mean that as praise. But in actuality, most of these scenes are less overblown than the trailer would have you believe. Burton allows the story and framework itself to be fantastical and far-fetched, and then lets the events that transpire because of the premise play out on their own. That said, some of the jokes are cheap—very cheap. As if it weren’t enough that the script employs a 200 year old vampire can’t adjust to the anachronisms of the modern day, the year has to be 1972—a year whose outright grooviness necessitates an unusually high number of cultural oddities. Depp performs well as a vessel, letting situations control the humor, rather than his acting and reactions to the elements from contrasting time periods.

Dark Shadows won’t convert anyone to the cult of Burton, and there’s plenty to cite as shortcomings with the film’s demanding level of suspension of disbelief and gratuitous scene sequences. What the film will do is please fans of Burton and Depp with a dry, dark script and quality acting that centers on a fairy-tale story. Burton may still be finding his way back to the creative space he once inhabited, but Dark Shadows is a surprising step in the right direction.

About author
Bryan Parker is a writer and photographer living and working in Austin, TX. He is the founder of blog Pop Press International and print journal True Sincerity and recently released his first book, a volume on Beat Happening in the 33 1/3 series.

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