Saturday, May 12, 2012

Barnabas A.D. 1972: DARK SHADOWS

Running for over 1,000 episodes in the late 60s and early 70s, Dark Shadows was a supernatural soap opera about a vampire and his mortal descendents living in a big spooky house on the coast of Maine. The slapdash but committed show has a devoted cult following, the members running the gamut from scary earnest to entirely ironic. It’s easy to imagine that director Tim Burton falls somewhere in the middle. His films have always had a sly approach to the supernatural and a baroque gothic style that suits itself nicely to deathly serious, but deeply cracked, tales of smirking dark fantasy.

Now Burton (surely one of the few working auteurs who is a recognizable brand to the general public) and author Seth Grahame-Smith (his novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter has been turned into a big studio release for later this summer) have adapted the show into a feature film. I have no idea how accurately the show’s tone and content have been adapted – I simply haven’t had the time nor the inclination to give it much of a go – but what is clear is that Burton has created a sumptuously imagined film that builds its own crooked world out of a variety of influences. It plays like a Hammer horror film, specifically one of Christopher Lee’s Dracula pictures – he, Lee, not Dracula, has a cameo here – filtered through an American gothic (with additional shades of Washington Irving’s “Sleepy Hollow” or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”), all told in a groovy half-camp Burton style.

The story starts in the 1700s when the family Collins leaves Liverpool and sails for Maine. There, the family establishes the seaside town of Collinsport on the back of a productive fishing business. A big beautiful mansion is built and all seems well. But young Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp, of course) spurns the attentions of a servant girl (Eva Green) who turns out to be a witch. And so she puts the Collins family under her devious curses. She conjures a situation that kills Barnabas’s parents and later, her broken heart still smoldering, puts Barnabas’s fiancĂ© (Bella Heathcote, big-eyed and pale) into a trance and forces her to walk off the edge of a cliff. To top it all off, the angry witch turns Barnabas into a vampire, which adds layers of whitish-grey makeup to his face and hands. (When he feeds, bright red dribbles of blood dot either side of his lower lip in a clear reference to Christopher Lee’s vampiric look.) She turns the town against him, and watches as the angry mob locks him in a coffin and buries him deep.

The plot picks up in an exquisitely detailed and beautifully heightened 1972, filled up with period fashions and super-cool vintage music cues to set the mood. (And Lee’s Dracula A.D. 1972 is playing at Collinsport’s downtown theater, a nice touch.) The Collins remain a cursed family. Their fishery is shuttered and the remaining family members are cooped up in the cavernous mansion: the matriarch (Michelle Pfeiffer), her surly teen daughter (Chloe Grace Moretz), her brother (Jonny Lee Miller) and his troubled son (Gulliver McGrath). Also on hand are the alcoholic groundskeeper (Jackie Earle Haley), the new nanny (Bella Heathcote again, some nice visual foreshadowing), and the youngest Collins’s boozy, tragically vain child psychiatrist (Helena Bonham Carter). This is a wonderfully droll cast giving terrific performances that underplay the oddities and eccentricities of the family’s life, which only enhances the hilarious gags and heightened tones. A couple of early dining room scenes have some of the same pacing and likable snap of similar moments in Burton’s Beetlejuice. Also like that film, this one soon becomes a movie in which an odd outsider shakes up the routine of an eccentric family in surprising, supernatural ways.

When construction workers dig up Barnabas’s coffin, they awaken a deadly fish-out-of-water movie as this long-lost relative stumbles back into town and, despite befuddlement on his part and confusion on theirs, wants to help his skeptical kin regain control of the town’s fishing empire. It’s a quest made all the more urgent when the porcelain-skinned C.E.O. of the rival fish company turns out to be none other than the same immortal witch who cursed him two centuries prior. Theirs is a twisted love affair, less love-hate, more she loves-and-hates, he mostly just hates. She’s an exuberantly frisky kind of evil; he’s just puzzled by his surroundings and only wants what’s best for his family and would very much like her out of the way. It’s a juicy hook, for sure, but with all of these other characters interacting with Barnabas as well, and each with their own little subplots of varying importance, the movie’s biggest flaw is its overstuffed qualities.

The movie is overflowing with plot and character in ways that obfuscate a strong central interest, making the whole thing lumpy and often without momentum. What are we supposed to think about Barnabas, a good man and a cursed man who is at once a source of humor and a scary monster? He’s the butt of culture clash jokes, but he also kills (no spoilers) some characters who are quite likable and hardly wholly villainous. The film’s never quite sure what to do with him and if Depp knows, and I suspect he might, he isn’t given the chance to let us in. That leaves this main thread curiously unresolved. But the other characters wander in and out of the film as well, moving in and out of focus. Some go missing for long stretches of time, even ones that are so very prominent to emotional beats of the overarching narrative. Still, I shrugged off such nagging thoughts rather easily, filing them away as an unsuccessful attempt at feature-length homage to soap opera plotting.

Besides, this is a movie with characters that are just plain fun to be around and with a style to luxuriate in. Burton, with the great French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, films it all with a colorful style, genre piece as groovy period piece. Here’s a movie rich in atmospherics both comic and mildly frightening, dripping with a great sense of visual play. I particularly liked a scene in which a person gets their blood sucked while they’re in the middle of getting a blood transfusion. Burton leaves the I.V. bag in the foreground as it slowly then suddenly crumples in on itself like a used juice box.

Some have found Burton’s use of computer-driven effects in recent years to be excessive and, oddly enough, a limit on his imagination. Fair enough, if we’re talking about his Alice in Wonderland, which, aside from a few nice touches, felt more like a generic movie he was hired to coat in a Burton gloss. To me, Sweeney Todd and, to a lesser extent, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory feel just as wonderful as, though certainly different from, his earlier, more tactile, effects work. With Dark Shadows he shows admirable restraint, so that by the time the effects hit the fan, it’s a natural outgrowth of the satisfying strangeness that’s come before, spectacle that’s been very well earned. It’s a film that wears its darkness lightly and falls into a satisfyingly funky groove.

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