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Movie Review: Dark Shadows

May 11, 2012
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Tim Burton’s attempts to homage, revamp, and satirize his latest remake Dark Shadows are ambitious, but fruitless.  As he tries to entertain, wow, scare, and captivate the audience, he takes what could have been a tongue-in-cheek revival of the cult classic and instead makes a film that lacks cohesiveness with no clear tone or purpose. Blending equal parts humor, horror, and parody with the already convoluted soap opera overwhelms the screen. He seems to be trying to make a film that does “everything”, which oftentimes guarantees one that does nothing. That being said, I sort of liked it.

The story begins with a sweeping gothic romance than would make a Brontë sister proud. Barnabus Collins (Johnny Depp) is a wealthy man from the 1770s who is locked in a love triangle between two women.  The buxom Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) ignites his passions, but never sparks true love. However, Josette DuPres (Bella Heathcote) captures his heart with her doe-eyed gaze. Overwhelmed with envy, Angelique is revealed to be a witch. Resolute that if she cannot have Barnabus then no woman can, Angelique kills Josette by placing her under a spell and condemns Barnabus to live the reminder of his existence as a vampire.  Damnation is not enough for her, though, as she sets the town of Collinsport against him. He is captured, buried alive, and forced to dwell in darkness and despair for the rest of eternity.

Or at least until 1972…

Eventually some diggers stumble upon his casket and he is released from his buried prison into a world that seems slightly askew.  His new purpose quickly becomes clear: he must reclaim his status as head of household and renew the dignity and fortune that the Collins family once knew so well.

There is not much left of his home at Collinswood outside of a few characters that are certainly dysfunctional enough to make even a vampire feel at home.  The dusty mansion is sparse with little life excluding the few family members left.  These residents include Carolyn Stoddard (Chloë Grace Moretz),  the broody counter-culture teen; Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), the resident alcoholic psychiatrist; and Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) who is constantly busy doing matriarchal things as well as a handful of others.

All of these characters are quirky enough, but none of them amount to much more than ambiance. They jump in with a few lines when the plot needs to be furthered or a joke needs to be executed, but unlike the tradition of most soap operas, this is a truly a one-man show for Johnny Depp. He, of course, falls into the role with ease. Playing a debonair, kooky, yet mysterious gentlemen with a refined elegance hardly sounds like a challenge for Depp, especially when he gets to be painted nearly white with make-up. Full of intensity, Barnabus is a character hard to dislike, but there is a distance between him and this artificially created world that keeps everyone, including the audience, at a disconnect throughout.

Michelle Pfeiffer and our villainess witch (Green), who lives eternally as well, are the true standouts in the picture. Both embrace their personifications of female empowerment but in greatly contrasting ways. Green embracing the slutty, diabolical ideologies of a femme fatale is mischievous and spunky, while Pfeiffer is more like a stern headmistress: confident, relentless, and always on her guard. Both of these women need only one thing: Barnabas Collins. Green longs to quench an undying passion and Pfeiffer’s desire is to resurrect her family name from near obliteration. Barnabas can help both women achieve their goals, but to what end: his demise? Theirs?

Neither women are innocent, though so their potential for love interest is null. Victoria Winters (once again played by Bella Heathcote) becomes the object of Barnabus’ affection with simply a timid glance. He finds himself drawn to her the moment he touches her hand, but unfortunately little is done to amplify their romance. She is a character created solely to give motivation to the plot, and then she is forgotten about until the third act begins to wrap up. Barnabas’s attempts at wooing her could have been delightful  filler from one act to the next, but honestly her character isn’t nearly as much fun as everyone else

My favorite moments were when the film truly embraced its comic nature. Predominately the reactionary shots of Depp as he struggles to adapt to the reality of his new life in the colorful 1970s are consistently entertaining and hilarious.  As he attempts to exorcize the television, stares suspiciously at the ever-changing lava lamp, and finds reason to wax poetic when anyone else would just smile and nod, the true warmth of the film is found. He even hires Alice Cooper to perform (in an awkward celebrity cameo) only to comment on what an unattractive woman “she” is. The film is not Burton’s strongest, but it is not without its charms.

Also, it is stunning to look at. Burton proves yet again that he is first and foremost a visual director. The intricate staircases, indulgently dusty chandeliers, and secret trap doors that make up this haunted house are never lacking in fun. This paired with a soundtrack of equal parts 70s hits and an eerie score by Danny Elfman… well, I wasn’t too upset. I don’t forgive it for its  flaws, but I managed to overlook them for a couple of hours.

Being a child of the 80s, I could hardly consider myself a purist, but I have seen a handful of episodes and recognize the campy, melodramatic tendencies that gave the show such great acclaim. I wouldn’t say Burton missed the mark, but I would inquire the circumference that the mark truly was.  Yes, there were over 1200 episodes of the “Dark Shadows” series, a monumental amount for a show that only ran for 5 years. With such an expanse of footage, the resurrection hardly seems necessary, but c’mon, what isn’t fun about raising the dead?

3 out of 5 stars. Rated PG-13 for comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking. Directed by Tim Burton. Starring Johnny Depp, Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Jackie Earle Haley, Jonny Lee Miller, Bella Heathcote, Chloë Grace Moretz, Gulliver McGrath, and Christopher Lee.

 

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