CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: DARK SHADOWS (2012)
By Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(THE SCENE: a cliff overlooking the ocean, below, large waves crash against the rocks. L.L. SOARES stands at the edge, looking down, when MICHAEL ARRUDA approaches.)
MA: DON’T DO IT!
LS (turns) Don’t do what?
MA: Don’t jump.
LS: I wasn’t going to jump. I was just looking out over the ocean. Nice view.
MA: Are you sure? I know you just came back from seeing the new Tim Burton movie, DARK SHADOWS! If that doesn’t make someone want to jump off a cliff, I don’t know what does!
LS (puts a hand to his heart): But it’s not as tragic as all that, is it? I certainly don’t feel the desire to end it all.
MA: I guess you liked the movie more than I did. If you’re not jumping, why don’t you start the review then?
DARK SHADOWS is the new Tim Burton movie, starring his frequent leading man, Johnny Depp. This time Depp plays Barnabas Collins, a tragic hero turned into a vampire by a jealous witch and condemned to spend two centuries chained inside a coffin beneath the earth.
It doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? The truth is, based on the trailers for this one, I wasn’t expecting any of this movie to be that much fun. The commercials make it look like an all-out comedy, and a bad one at that. The thing is, the opening sequences of DARK SHADOWS, telling us how poor Barnabas becomes a vampire, are actually played pretty straight. This gave me some hope that maybe the movie might be a pleasant surprise.
MA: A lot of the movie is played straight. In fact, if you pay careful attention to the script, the story itself is rather serious. Too bad Tim Burton wasn’t interested in making a serious movie.
LS: So two hundred years ago, wealthy Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) has a dalliance with his servant girl, Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green). When Barnabas tells her he can never marry her because of his station in life (besides, he never loved her anyway), Angelique vows to make him pay. First, she uses witchcraft to have a giant stone gargoyle fall upon his unsuspecting parents. Then, when Barnabas falls in love with another woman, Angelique puts the poor girl, Josette (Bella Heathcote), under her spell, and has the girl walk out to a cliff—much like this one we’re standing on—and throw herself into the sea. In horror, Barnabas throws himself in after her, intent on dying with his love if he cannot have her. But no such luck. Angelique has also cursed Barnabas, turning him into a vampire who cannot die. So the swan dive into the waves and rocks doesn’t kill him.
MA: So much drama, so quickly, I don’t know if I can stand it!
LS: When Barnabas quenches his infernal thirst for blood, Angelique then gathers the townsfolk together to capture Barnabas and force him into his coffin, which they chain up and bury deep in the ground. Unable to free himself, Barnabas waits. For two centuries, he waits, until some workmen stumble upon his resting place and inadvertently set him free.
MA: More drama!
LS: The movie then shows us Barnabas as a man lost in time, arisen in 1972 in a world he never made. He tries to adapt, returning to the mansion he once called home, Collinwood, and reuniting with what’s left of his family – a motley crew of descendants who have fallen on hard times, with the fishing industry not what it once was, and the family fortune dwindling away to nothing.
The family actually accepts their “Cousin Barnabas From Across the Sea” pretty easily. And he goes about restoring the family to its former glory, using a secret stash of jewels and gold hidden beneath the house, to renovate the mansion, and bring the abandoned family canning factory up to modern times. Barnabas even uses his powers of hypnotism to convince the local fishing boat captains to work for him instead of the woman who is the Collins family’s main rival, a woman who turns out to be Angelique, the very same witch who put Barnabas in the ground to rot!
MA: Barnabas Collins saving the fishing industry— suddenly, no drama!
LS: The rest of the movie revolves around Barnabas’s attempts to protect his family, and break the curse that Angelique has placed on him (and doing his best to spurn her advances). At the same time, the new nanny, who just joined the family, Victoria Winters (also Bella Heathcote), is also the spitting image of Barnabas’s beloved Josette . Is it a coincidence, or has his love been reincarnated in this new version to come back to him?
MA: How many times do we have to suffer through this tired plot point of the reincarnated love? I could just throw up.
LS: As I said earlier, the movie starts out fairly serious as Depp provides narration to the tale of how Barnabas ended up as a vampire beneath the ground. And then, during the opening credits, the young Maggie Evans decides to change her name to Victoria Winters as she rides a train to Collinsville, Maine, intent on becoming the nanny to the young David Collins (Gulliver McGrath).
MA: And she does this because..? I think she changes her name from Maggie Evans so the writers have an excuse to use the name, which of course, is the name of a character from the original series.
LS: How many names does this girl need? It gets confusing. Is she Maggie, Victoria, or poor Josette?
I thought it was interesting that during the train scene, as the opening credits role, the music we hear is “Nights in White Satin,” the classic tune by the Moody Blues. Despite being a love song, it’s rather somber, and sets a definite mood. I think it works quite well, even though I was very disappointed that the original music from the DARK SHADOWS TV show isn’t used at this point (or at all in the movie, for that matter).
The original DARK SHADOWS ran from 1966 to 1971. It started out as just another soap opera until, a couple of years into its run, the character of forlorn vampire Barnabas Collins was introduced (played by Jonathan Frid). Suddenly, the show became something of a phenomenon for several years. I remember when I was a kid, rushing home after school to watch DARK SHADOWS on TV. As the show went on, it introduced lots of other characters, including some that were ghosts, werewolves, and witches, as well as giving us storylines that took place in other time periods. It really was an exceptional television show for its time, and was created by the great Dan Curtis, who also gave us another one of my favorite TV show, KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER (1974 – 1975), as well as the two Kolchak TV-movies that preceded it.
DARK SHADOWS, the TV show, has become a cult classic since then. And yes, there is a certain tongue-in-cheek campiness to it. Like most soap operas of the time, it’s very melodramatic. But it also had an incredibly small budget, which means that things went wrong a lot. Sets, often made of cardboard, would collapse. Actors flubbed their lines and it was kept in (either the shows were aired live, or they simply did not have the money to do more than one take). Sometimes the actors themselves even laughed at a particular mishap. But the majority of the time, they played it completely straight. If they’d only had better sets and a bigger budget, the show would have been much more effective in delivering chills – which was its true intention. How do I know this? Because during the height of the show’s popularity in the 70s, Curtis made two theatrical films based on the show, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS (1970) and NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS (1971), featuring the same actors from the soap opera reprising their roles, this time with a slightly bigger budget, and certainly not played for laughs. The two films are definitely intended to be serious horror films.
For those of us who grew up on DARK SHADOWS, it’s a very fond memory. They even tried to reboot the show in 1991, when series creator Dan Curtis brought it back, this time in prime time, with Ben Cross as Barnabas. Unfortunately, that incarnation of the show only last 12 episodes.
And here is Tim Burton, trying to bring it back another time. And it really makes me yearn for the touch of Dan Curtis, because I think Burton gets it all completely wrong!
MA: You think?
LS: Perceived as a starring vehicle for Johnny Depp, an actor who I normally like very much, Tim Burton’s version of DARK SHADOWS seems a lot like a failed experiment to me. There were moments where I thought it was working, where I could see what Burton was up to. Unfortunately, these are few and far between. Because, for most of its running time, DARK SHADOWS is pretty awful.
MA: I’ll say! DARK SHADOWS is every bit as awful as I feared it would be. It’s horribly dull, and strangely, unimaginative. For a movie about vampires, witches, and family curses, what the hell is it doing spending so much time on the Collins family business and the fishing industry? Do I really care whether the Collins family business survives or not? What is this, DALLAS? It’s like a— soap opera. Which might be the funniest thing about this movie, that its plot inadvertently does play out like a soap opera. But guess what folks, it’s not a soap opera this time—it’s a movie! You don’t have five days a week to tell your story. You gotta get it done in two hours!
Jonathan Frid as the “real” Barnabas Collins in the original DARK SHADOWS TV series. “Look Ma, No Camp!”
DARK SHADOWS is a movie in desperate need of an identity. It doesn’t seem to know what it’s supposed to be. It’s not a good comedy, as the laughs don’t come anywhere near often enough, and it’s too over-the-top to be a serious thriller. It’s stuck in the middle, and as a result, it’s not a good movie.
I kept thinking, it’s as if Burton decided that no one’s ever going to take this story seriously, so let’s play it for laughs. I wish they had made a serious horror movie. It would have been much better. I was bored throughout most of DARK SHADOWS. It’s up there with Burton’s other misfire, the PLANET OF THE APES (2001) remake.
LS: While I do have problems with DARK SHADOWS, I don’t think it’s anywhere near as horrible as the APES remake. For fans of the original PLANET OF THE APES, Burton’s version is an insult.
But DARK SHADOWS is fatally flawed, and a big part of it is the cast. All of the actors here are quite capable, and yet, they all seem to be acting in different movies, even though they’re all here, in the same one. Some people, like Michelle Pfeiffer as Collins matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, play it completely straight, and do a good job of it.
MA: I agree. Pfeiffer plays it straight and is quite good as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, but it’s such a dull, boring role. Elizabeth Stoddard is about as interesting as a can of tuna.
LS: Other performances I liked included Chloe Grace Moretz (“Hit Girl” from KICK-ASS and she was also in LET ME IN, both from 2010) as Elizabeth’s teenage daughter, Carolyn and I liked Bella Heathcoate a lot as nanny Victoria Winters.
MA: I agree about Moretz. It’s amazing how terrific an actress she is at such a young age! Up there with Depp as Barnabas, she delivers the best performance in the movie, but Carolyn Stoddard is a small role, and she’s not in the movie enough to have much of an impact.
LS: With what little she has to work with, she does just fine. There are several actors here who have a lot more screen time, and who aren’t as interesting.
MA: But Bella Heathcoate? I found her terribly boring and unconvincing as Barnabas’s love interest. He might as well be in love with a painting, that’s how much personality she doesn’t have.
LS: And yet she seems perfect for Barnabas. A reserved, elegant woman with the manners of an earlier time. To everyone else she seems “square,” but to Barnabas she seems to be a dream come true.
Helena Bonham Carter (Burton’s real-life wife and a familiar face in all his recent films) also plays it mostly straight as the Collins’ live-in psychiatrist, Dr. Julia Hoffman. Although she does have a few scenes where she “camps it up.”
MA: Really? I thought Carter hammed it up throughout. I found her Dr. Hoffman incredibly irritating. I think she’s supposed to be a funny character, an eccentric doctor, but she comes off as a harsh medic in need of a drink every few minutes.
LS: However, Johnny Depp, as the main character of Barnabas, who is in almost every scene, plays the role in such an over-the-top and often silly way that he’s the elephant in the room that everyone else pretends not to notice.
MA: I disagree. I actually found Depp’s performance more subdued than I expected it to be.
LS: Are you kidding me? With his silly accent, his face glowing with white powder, and his incredibly silly mannerisms, it’s like he’s in a completely different movie.
MA: Well, I agree that his look is silly, but that’s Burton’s fault, not Depp’s.
LS: Everyone around him acts as if everything Barnabas does is completely normal (except for Chloe, who keeps telling him how weird he is). No one blinks when it is revealed he is a vampire. No one has a problem with the fact that he is completely unfamiliar with the modern world (well, the modern world of 1972). He sleeps upside down like a bat and brushes his teeth in a mirror that doesn’t show his reflection. How funny….well, not really. And his dialogue often includes several groaner jokes that are just painful to sit through.
MA: All true, but these are flaws in the script, and not Depp’s fault.
LS: But the script is a major part of what we see on the screen before us. And Depp, an actor who has proven in past films that he can transcend his material, instead wallows in it here.
Depp hams it up so much, I found myself really disliking him, which is a rarity for me. I get that Burton is going for complete campiness here. But the thing is—and this is something I’ve said many times about movies that try to be funny in a campy way—truly campy movies do not give us that nudge and wink that something funny is going on. The best campy movies play it completely straight and do not show us they are aware of the campiness at all. And Depp’s performance is so self-aware, so purposely out of step with everyone else, that he’s more annoying than humorous. Which makes the few scenes where Barnabas has to kill to get his precious nourishment of blood all the more bizarre. Why is this silly man suddenly slaughtering people?
MA: I have to disagree with you here, but only about Depp. I’m with you in terms of how this movie just doesn’t work. Believe it or not, I actually liked Depp as Barnabas. To me, he was acting exactly the way a person would act stepping into the 1970s for the first time after having lived in the 18th century. To that end, I actually found Depp playing it straight.
The problem is with Tim Burton’s interpretation of all this. If everyone else in the movie is dead serious, and the film actually looks like real life 1970s, then what Barnabas is saying and doing would be quite funny. He’d be a fish out of water—heh, heh— and he’d be believable when slaughtering people. He’d be a deadly vampire, with some of his scenes—because of his unfamiliarity with the 1970s—being funny.
But that’s not what we get at all. Burton might as well have remade THE MUNSTERS, because that’s what this movie looks like, but Johnny Depp is no Herman Munster. He’s actually much more serious than that. With just the right amount of tweaking, Depp would have made an excellent dramatic Barnabas Collins.
LS: Good observation, there. THE MUNSTERS is exactly what this movie reminded me of, a lot of the time. In that show, the monsters think they are completely normal, and yet the outside world is terrified of them, and reacts accordingly. In the DARK SHADOWS movie, Depp’s Barnabas is equally unaware of how strange he is—which is ironic as hell since Depp’s actual performance is incredibly self-aware.
MA: But I still liked Depp in the role. I feared it would be Captain Jack Sparrow with fangs. It’s not.
LS: He’s not the only one, but he is the most blatant one here who is constantly winking at the audience. Eva Greene, as Angelique, fluctuates between trying to be a straightforward villain, and being as silly as Depp is.
MA: I didn’t like Eva Greene as Angelique at all. Greene was so memorable as Vesper in the first Daniel Craig Bond film CASINO ROYALE (2006). Here, her Angelique is just annoying. She’s supposed to be driven by an insane love for Barnabas Collins. Insane is the operative word here. There’s a scene early on in the movie, where Angelique and Barnabas are children, and she’s looking at him with longing even then. That’s love? That’s insanity!
LS: Haven’t you ever heard of puppy love?
MA: As a result, Angelique is just a cardboard cutout of a villain without any real motivation.
LS: And Jackie Earle Haley is pretty much the Collins’ court jester as servant Willie Loomis—but that’s the one role that is forgivable, since Loomis was just as goofy in the old television series.
MA: No, he wasn’t! Willie Loomis was one of my favorite characters on the old DARK SHADOWS TV show. He was a tragic, tortured character. Haley plays him like a drunken dolt. He completely ruins the character.
LS: Some characters seem completely lost. Especially Jonny Lee Miller (who I first noticed as an actor back in 1996, in Danny Boyle’s TRAINSPOTTING), as family ne’er do well Roger Collins, who really doesn’t have much to do until he leaves half-way through. Roger’s young son David (Gulliver McGrath) is perhaps the most cheated character of all. His David seems to have some serious issues, not the least of which is the ghost of his mother, who drowned years before, and he has a lot of potential for a serious storyline, and yet, for most of the movie, he’s pretty much ignored. Another oversight is Bella Heathcoate as Victoria. Early on it’s evident that she’s supposed to be an important character. She is, after all, the reincarnation of Barnabas’s great love and he is determined to win her over anew. And yet there are huge chunks of the movie where Burton just seems to forget about her for awhile, in order to focus on more silliness.
The soundtrack is actually quite good, being loaded up with great songs from the late 60s and early 70s by the likes of the aforementioned Moody Blues, Iggy Pop, Donovan and Marc Bolan’s seminal band T. Rex, not to mention Barry White and the Carpenters, whose music is used to good effect.
MA: Yes, the soundtrack is one element of the movie that I actually really liked!
LS: Even Alice Cooper shows up to perform at a ball thrown by the Collins clan for the local townsfolk. Despite the fact that Danny Elfman is credited as composing the score for the film, his original music isn’t very memorable and doesn’t flex its muscles in the soundtrack, which might be a good thing, since many of his scores seem to sound very similar to each other, especially in Tim Burton movies.
MA: I liked Elfman’s music here. I thought it had some nice haunting elements to it.
LS: Nothing as haunting as Bob Cobert’s very atmospheric and spooky theme music from the original TV show. There really was no way Burton could have included it here somewhere?? I find that hard to believe!
MA: He probably thought it would be too spooky for this movie! I missed Cobert’s music, too.
LS: There are some interesting cameos. The great Christopher Lee plays an old sea captain – it’s always good to see Lee in a film.
MA: Absolutely! And his deep booming voice is still present, even as he nears 90! I am so absolutely impressed that Lee continues to work even today. Loved seeing him.
LS: And the end credits mentioned a scene featuring cameos by some of the original show’s actors as “guests” – including Jonathan Frid (the original TV Barnabas, who died a few weeks ago; as well as original Angelique, Lara Parker; and David Selby who had played Quentin Collins, another favorite character of mine from the original series). But, despite the three of them being credited at the end, I did not remember seeing them in the film.
MA: That’s because their cameo lasts all of two seconds. It’s the scene at the ball. The door opens and they’re in the doorway about to enter. As soon as I saw them I was like, “there they a—,” and then the camera cuts away, and they’re not seen again. It’s literally about two seconds long. Kathryn Leigh Scott, the original Victoria Winters, is also supposed to be there. I only had time to recognize Frid, and then they were gone.
LS: The script was by Seth Grahame-Smith, who also wrote the novel and script for the upcoming ABRAHAM LINCOLN, VAMPIRE HUNTER as well as the novel PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES. And he certainly has some responsibility in the script’s uneven tone.
MA: I’m going to disagree with you on that point. If you pay close attention to the dialogue, you’ll notice something interesting. It doesn’t really play like a comedy. It plays like the story of Barnabas Collins.
I blame director Tim Burton for this one. He purposely filmed this story like an over-the-top cartoon.
In another director’s hands, and with the same script, this could have been a serious horror movie with comedic overtones. Seeing Barnabas struggle in the 1970s would have been funnier if the rest of the movie had been played straight.
LS: I’m confused. Earlier, when I attacked Depp’s performance, you blamed the movie’s weaknesses on the script. Now you say it’s Burton’s fault. Which one is it?
MA: I agree that the script does have some problems, but Burton’s the main reason this one feels all wrong. The Collins mansion looks like something from THE ADDAMS FAMILY. Barnabas’s make-up looks like he belongs on a Walt Disney Halloween Special. And the characters look like they’re in an old Carol Burnett Show skit, but without the laughs.
LS: The “CAROL BURNETT SHOW (1967 – 1978)?” What an obscure reference that will be for most of our readers.
MA: They’ll live.
LS: As for Barnabas’s makeup, I’m assuming that’s supposed to be funny, but I found it completely distracting and stupid. Jonathan Frid never looked so asinine in the original DARK SHADOWS show. It is like a cartoon.
And, I want to know, can Depp’s Barnabas move around in sunlight or not? There are several scenes where sunlight makes him spontaneously combust. And yet there are other scenes where he is walking around in the light of day with a hat and sunglasses. What about the exposed skin of his face? Is he suddenly immune? Or is this just bad writing? Shouldn’t he be in his coffin during the day, and only available to deal with business matters at night?
MA: I was so bored, I didn’t care.
LS: As for Burton, I know some people idolize him, but his output has been uneven for decades now. While I still think movies like ED WOOD (1994) and SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999) are terrific, this is the same guy who also gave us the equally flawed MARS ATTACKS! (1996), as well as the completely abysmal PLANET OF THE APES remake from 2001. Which just goes to prove that, while Burton is certainly a very talented director, not everything the man touches turns to gold.
All in all, I thought DARK SHADOWS had an awful lot of potential, if Burton had simply not let Johnny Depp run wild. Burton seems to bring out the worst aspects of Depp’s acting, here and in roles like Willy Wonka in CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (2005) and the Mad Hatter in ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010). Enough with the hamming it up already!
And where the hell did the “surprise” werewolf in the last big showdown scene come from?
There were a few things I liked about DARK SHADOWS, but a lot more that I didn’t care for. I give it one knife.
MA: I didn’t laugh much, so it didn’t work as a comedy, and it’s certainly not even close to being scary, so it’s not a good horror movie either. What is it, then? It’s like I said. It’s as if Burton set out to make a DARK SHADOWS cartoon, because that’s how it plays out. It more closely resembles the SCOOBY DOO cartoon seen briefly on TV at one point in the movie than the original DARK SHADOWS TV show, except that the SCOOBY DOO cartoons of yesteryear were better. They got the humor right.
LS: Yes, when Barnabas is watching that episode of SCOOBY DOO, he dismisses it as a “silly play.” And yet, the DARK SHADOWS movie has no more meaning or substance. In the end, it is also a “silly play.”
MA: I give DARK SHADOWS one knife, as well.
LS: We usually add a lot more jokes to our columns, but this one’s running kind of long. Besides, we don’t need any extra jokes this time, DARK SHADOWS is a bad joke all by itself.
MA: Care to jump now?
LS: I’d rather get a pizza.
MA: Me, too. Where’s the closest pizza joint?
LS: Down there. (Kicks MA off the cliff.) Life’s a bitch. Then you— fly. (Leaps off cliff.)
(CUT to MA and LS, hanging on to a floating pizza, slowly rising back up through air towards the cliff.)
MA: Gotta love these new pizzas with the self-rising dough!
LS: I wanted extra cheese!
MA: We’ll add that after we land.
© Copyright 2012 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
Michael Arruda gives DARK SHADOWS~ ONE KNIFE!
LL Soares gives DARK SHADOWS~ONE KNIFE!