The Dim Shadows of Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows”By Frederik Sisa @ 1:00 PM May 18, 2012
Whenever Hollywood adapts a television series, fan base reaction follows a familiar alliterative pattern of despair, dismay and disdain. Despair at Hollywood’s lack of originality. Dismay at the potential ruination of a beloved show. Disdain for the studios’ mercenary motives. The list of failed adaptations is long and certainly aggravates the allergy to adaptations. But the conclusion shouldn’t be a moratorium on future attempts. In principle, a feature film offers the creative opportunity for modernizing and distilling television series that, however loved, might be otherwise dated or bloated from content parceled out in episodic format. Such an adaptation, done properly, could serve equally well as a gateway to its inspiration while offering its own parallel narrative. That most adaptations fail stems from the simplest of incompetentcies: An inability to grasp a television series’ essential character and confusing pandering for storytelling. Despite Hollywood’s repeated failures, the dream stubbornly remains that somewhere, sometime, a filmmaker will take a much-loved television series and give it a worthy cinematic treatment.
This adaptation of the cult gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, alas, is not that worthy effort, although the show itself is a prime candidate for reinvention as a movie. Despite my appreciation of the series concept delivered so memorably through, for example, Jonathan Frid’s incomparable portrayal of the vampire Barnabas Collins, the soap opera format proved unendurable. With each episode consisting essentially of plot recaps delivered through stilted and expository dialogue, with only small narrative steps forward to generate momentum, the series’ execution betrayed the seductiveness of its form as gothic melodrama.
When Warner Brothers announced the project of taking the long-running soap to the local cineplex, there was reason to cheer for the project, especially with Tim Burton attached to direct. A fast paced, cleanly focused melodrama could offer the joys of the series without having to sit through the hundreds of episodes. Naturally, Burton’s affinity for the macabre delivered with imaginative visual wit, displayed in films such as that grand gothic homage to ghost stories and Hammer horror, Sleepy Hollow, further offered the promise of a gorgeously weird film. But where, I wondered, would the script go? Trailers suggested a colossal misfire: Dark Shadows re-imagined as a fish-out-of-water spoof of itself.
The reality is that the film, over-the-top by necessity, is not nearly so campy as the trailers suggest. But something funny did happen on the way to the melodrama: Screenwriters John August, a veteran Burton collaborator with story credit for the film, and hotshot Seth Grahame-Smith, forgot the drama. Despite the fertile material of the series, or rather because of it, the script is an expository mess that suggests various plot and character ideas were pilfered from the series, put down to paper in an approximation of order, and given to Burton for filming. Not even stellars like Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Jonny Lee Miller, Eva Green or any other of the cast can mine the script for psychological nuance or narrative coherence. Other than Barnabas Collins’s sustained conflict with Angelique, the dubiously love-besotted witch who curses him into vampirism only to engineer his live burial, the film consists of moments and events that, however interesting on their own, nevertheless remain undeveloped and disconnected from the whole. What moments of genuine drama occur are, if not undone by a random twist of the plot, then sold out for the cheap laugh of a poorly timed gag. When Barnabas bemoans the innocent deaths he has caused to slake his undeniable thirst, for example, whatever genuine remorse we can squeeze from the character is laughed away when he leans his head against the console of an electric organ and triggers a cheesy synthesized beat. Dark Shadows may not be an outright lampoon. But it demonstrates a curious lack of comic timing to serve as counterpoint to sweeping melodrama. When the film, already shaking itself apart in the quintessential confrontation with special effects, brings in projectile witch vomit, the film finally reveals the futility of hoping for anything resembling sophistication.
It is only through the sheer force of Burton’s imagination, and a cast game enough to play up their roles no matter how flimsy the characters, that the film entertains in spite of itself. Burton manages to find opportunities to deliver images of startling gothic beauty, the likes of which are better seen than described. Compensating for an unusually tepid, theremin-free score by Danny Elfman, Burton makes Collinwood manor and the film’s various setting suitably supernatural and atmospheric. Depp is also suitably magnetic in the role of Barnabas Collins, playing the vampire as a Victorian gentlemen baffled by ‘70s cultures and all-too-easily overcome by his baser urges. Yet at this point in Depp’s career, the magical revelation that was his first venture as Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Carribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl has since dissipated. With each new blockbuster role, the impression is not so much of an actor lost in a performance but an entertainer playing dress-up. This is not at all unpleasant, but the joy of watching Depp on screen seems to lose luster with every new character that requires caricature to achieve effect.
Dark Shadows is superficially enjoyable, then; an amusing but pointless lark in Burton’s oeuvre alongside Mars Attacks! Just as several of the film’s characters are haunted by ghosts, the film itself is haunted by the expectations of what it could have, or should have, been. Unfair as it is to hold a film to the virtual standard of what it isn’t, the spectral question is: How much better would the adaptation have fared if conceived as Gosford Park or Downton Abbey filtered through the best of Hammer horror?
Dark Shadows. Directed by Tim Burton. Written by Seth Grahame-Smith, based on the television series created by Dan Curtis. Starring Johnny Depp, Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Jonny Lee Miller, Chloe Moretz, Bella Heathcoate, Gulliver McGrath and Jackie Earle Haley. 112 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking).
Mr. Sisa is Assistant Editor of The Front Page Online, may be contacted via
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