Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
May 2012

Dark Shadows

Vampire in Collinwood

'Dark Shadows' doesn't find its footing until it's two acts too late

Dark Shadows
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Tim Burton
Screenplay: Seth Grahame-Smith, based on the television series created by Dan Curtis
Starring: Johnny Depp, Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer, Bella Heathcote, Helena Bonham Carter, Chloë Grace Moretz, Jackie Earle Haley and Jonny Lee Miller
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 53 minutes
(out of four)

Tim Burton's Dark Shadows is a dull and confused enterprise until getting partially redeemed by a pretty terrific third act. The last 20 minutes or so had me reconsidering my feelings about the whole movie - which is as much of an indictment of the previous 90 minutes as it is a compliment to the impressive finale.

But only during that last section does it ever find itself. The film (with a reported $150 million budget) gives Burton a huge canvas, but he doesn't seem to find much use for his gifts until too late in the game. Up to that point, it's like he's on autopilot.

I wondered what it was about the climactic scenes, as opposed to the rest of the film, that brought out the best in Burton and his creative team. The conclusion I came to was that, by the time the third act rolls around, the plot has been sized down, reduced to a battle of will, cunning and supernatural power between the hero and the villain.

And so finally the film seems comfortable with itself and Burton is able to unleash his imagination, particularly in a huge dramatic setpiece at Collinwood Mansion (the centerpiece of Collinsport, the New England fishing town where the film is set). Burton utilizes every piece of production design, every available prop, every strange and macabre visual idea at his disposal and every character in the room in a dazzling display of macabre, funhouse revelry. The images - while nice-looking enough even before then - finally come alive (sometimes literally).

There's a supreme confidence to these sequences that runs in stark contrast to the rest of the movie. One might expect the unevenness to come from the mishmash of tones and styles Burton is trying to strike. But that mixture of eras - '70s chic superimposed on a dilapidated Gothic backdrop - actually balances pretty well. It's the story itself that is confused. Or, rather, that Burton and writer Seth Grahame-Smith are confused about.

The film will entirely forget about certain characters, then remember them and pretend they're important, only for them to disappear again and dissolve into irrelevance. In a cast of nearly a dozen significant characters and nearly as many subplots, it has absolutely no idea what to focus on or what's important. Which means we waste time on narrative dead ends (sorry, Jonny Lee Miller, but your role in this movie is 1 million percent unnecessary), in the process short-changing its own best asset.

Its best asset is this: Barnabas Collins vs. Angelique Bouchard. Johnny Depp vs. Eva Green. That is the substance of the film (and, inevitably, the focus of the climax) and the moments between the two are by and large the most potent. For starters, their shared history: Way back in the 18th Century, the Collins family moved from Liverpool to the East Coast of America. Barnabas (Depp) - the Collinses' favorite son, charming and well-liked, but apparently a bit of a cad - was madly in love Josette (Bella Heathcote), but carried on a heated physical relationship with Angelique (Green).

When Barnabas resisted her more serious romantic advances, Angelique - a witch, of course - caused the death of Barnabas' parents, as well as his darling Josette, and cursed him to be a vampire for all eternity. Fast-forward a couple centuries, when Barnabas' coffin is accidentally exhumed and he finds himself quite out of place in 1972. Collinwood is still right where he left it - as is Angelique, who has left the Collins family in ruins and taken over the town. She's quite pleased to see Barnabas, hoping at long last she'll finally convince him to love her as she loves him. Pity that his arrival coincides with that of the Collinses' new governess, Victoria Winters - a dead ringer for Josette.

And so it begins - the sexual gamesmanship between Barnabas and Angelique (including a great fight/sex scene that tears apart her expensively decorated office), the newly revitalized rivalry between their competing cannery businesses, and the Collins family dynamics as Barnabas welcomes himself back into the fold and Angelique tries to disrupt that reunion as much as she can.

But the film desperately needs more of those two, and less of everyone else - because they are what the film is really about. Scene after scene, subplot after subplot, could have been excised completely. Instead, we get a hurried five-minute prologue that details Barnabas and Angelique's shared history - which is a travesty, given that the dynamics of their relationship are based completely on that backstory. They deserve more.

Not coincidentally, the great final sequences are centered directly around those two. It's like the film has finally realized what it should have been focusing on all along. Shame that it didn't, especially since The Magnificent Eva Green (trademarked IGMS, 2012) - giving a good performance in a bad blond big - makes for such a great adversary. This brand of slinky, husky-voiced femme fatale isn't seen all that often anymore; I suppose it's only fitting that we get an old-school villain in a film based on a 1960s soap opera.

I know this was a bit of a passion project for Burton, who grew up loving the original series. Strangely enough, we don't feel much of that passion for the bulk of the film. But with 20 minutes of vintage Burton in the final reels, he shows he's still got his fastball; we just only get to see it in small doses these days.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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