Film, TV and the Arts

Film, TV and the Arts

Friday, 18 May 2012

Dark Shadows: Have Burton and Depp lost the element of surprise?

Some say "We've seen it all before", but could it be more a case of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are copping some flack at the moment for their recent work, and in particular their new film Dark Shadows. The magic has gone, say some. The ideas are falling flat, say others. However, the number one criticism they’re facing is that we’ve seen it all before.

Some have tired of the comic-gothic Burton sensibility, the extravagant Depp performances and bemoan a lack of invention, a characteristic which was abundant in their earlier work. That last point carries some weight. Despite its entertaining premise, there is precious little genuine originality on show here, particularly in an age when vampire films are ubiquitous and often parodied. However, the general criticism that Burton and Depp are covering well-trodden ground can be looked at another way: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Certainly, it would be nice for these two to do something genuinely unexpected or distinctly different from their main body of work, or at least something which demanded a new visual style from the tropes that Burton has fallen into, but it cannot be denied that, with Dark Shadows, they are still churning out entertaining stuff, even if it isn’t wildly surprising.

The film is adapted from an American TV soap of the same name. It focuses on Barnabas Collins (Depp), an 18th century colonialist and heir to a lucrative fishing business in New England. He spurns the affections of one of his servants (Eva Green), who turns out to be a witch, and then proceeds to kill Collins’ wife, transform him into a vampire, and have him buried in the ground. Two hundred years later, Collins is released, returns to his family and sets about trying to restore the family business to its former glory, but the witch is still around, pursuing Barnabas’ affections whilst wreaking havoc on the Collins family.

This is played broadly as a comedy, with Depp given free rein to be florid and successfully over the top in the way only he can be. It could be funnier, but some of the jokes are repetitive, and others are weakened because, oddly for a Burton film, the music is a bit off. Whilst he chooses some great 1970s music to listen to, sometimes it undercuts the comedy and creates an odd atmosphere. Meanwhile, Danny Elfman, in a rare misstep, has produced one of his least impressive scores, being derivative and ineffective.

However, the cast is strong and highly watchable. Michelle Pfeiffer is on great form as the matriarch of the family, and the obligatory Helena Bonham Carter performance is fun. Chloe Grace Moretz delivers another great turn, as does Bella Heathcote as the mysterious governess, but Johnny Lee Miller is underused. The film, though, belongs to Johnny Depp and Eva Green, both of whom are excellent as vampire and witch, and they share a hysterically funny love scene to a Barry White backing.

It all moves along at a fair click, has many good laughs and is entertaining throughout, even though it does go a little overboard in its final act. It isn’t classic Burton and Depp fare, but it is more than solid and well worth seeking out. It doesn’t deserve some of the criticism it’s been getting. Having said that, it would be nice if these two could pull off a surprise soon.

Rating: B

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