The world’s a better place for having Tim Burton in it. I’m not saying I love all his films. On the contrary, his Planet of the Apes enraged me and, despite their popularity, I never liked his Batmans. But there are so many more positives to his work. From Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice to Ed Wood and Sweeney Todd, Burton has proved himself one of the cinema’s most distinctive stylists, a passionate nerd with the flair of a circus ringmaster. Many of his films I love with a passion, and though sure, imperfections abound in his work, in my book at least, he’s aces.
Dark Shadows (12A)
For better and for worse, Dark Shadows is every inch a Tim Burton production.
Based on a long-running U.S. soap opera that played for five years from 1966 and told the supernatural tale of a New England family beset by vampirism, lycanthropy and black magic, though largely unknown outside of the States, Dark Shadows’ unusual storylines and po-faced clumsiness has long-since earned it cult status and generations of devotees, key among them, Tim Burton. Though I’ve never seen an episode myself, I love the fact that a show like this existed all those years ago, an unlikely hybrid of low budget soapy melodrama and barmy, blood-sucking horror.
With regards to Burton’s lavishly designed, mega-budgeted, big screen adaptation of Dark Shadows, prior knowledge of the show is hardly required. In fact, given how I’m certain the soap’s loyal fans will bitch and moan about every little difference between the original and Tim’s modern take, I’d argue it’s best to approach the movie with a clean slate.
Not for the first time – in fact for the eighth – Burton’s leading man in Johnny Depp, utterly submerging himself, as usual, to play the part of batty Barnabas Collins, a wealthy 18th Century weirdo whose spurned witch lover Angelique (Eva Green) crushes his parents, sends his fiancée over a cliff, transforms him into a vampire and buries him alive, or rather, undead. Released from the grave two centuries later by hapless construction folk who don’t survive to tell the tale, poor Barnabas is rather out of place in 1970s’ Maine, with much of the movie’s comedy derived from its fish-out-of-water set-up.
Returning to the family castle to find his dysfunctional, down-on-their-luck descendants in dire need of a familial assistance, Barnabas sets about resurrecting their flagging fortunes, much to the escalating annoyance of Angelique, who has likewise survived the centuries and still rather fancies the elder Collins.
Coming in at just under two hours, although the movie runs out of juice some way before the end, for much of its run it’s a merry, melodious romp. At once dark and colourful, with several fine, eccentric performances and plenty of wry social commentary about Seventies’ America. Besides Depp, stars of note include Michelle Pfeiffer as troubled Collins’ matriarch Elizabeth, Eva Green as the deliciously vampish Angelique and Watchmen star Jackie Earle Haley as the family’s hilariously off-beat groundskeeper Willie.
Where the movie falters is in its regrettable lack of focus. Veering uncertainly between camp comedy and gothic melodrama, its soapy sensibilities saddle it with many more subplots than it can comfortably handle, culminating in a drawn-out final act that appears more concerned with plot than entertainment. Added to that, a handful of extraneous, eleventh-hour revelations seem forced and tacked on, the act of fan filmmakers determined to do an obscure show justice, even though the majority of the movie’s audience won’t know the first thing about the original series.
Regardless of these reservations, I rather enjoyed Dark Shadows. Its quirky sense of humour, wild Burtonian visuals and taste for all things twisted combining to create a flawed but fun, filmic freak show.
Also at the Cinema…
Given the disgraced star’s toxic public persona, it’s perhaps no surprise that Mel Gibson’s latest attempt to revive his flagging fortunes, Get the Gringo, skipped its U.S. cinema release and premiered straight to DVD. What with Gibson’s rampant misogyny and anti-Semitism I can’t say I’m too bothered for him, but certainly director Adrian Grunberg deserved a fairer shake as the movie, retitled How I Spent My Summer Vacation (15) for its UK release, is actually a rather spirited, darkly funny and exciting, crime-themed actioner. Largely set in a tough Mexican prison and featuring a pleasingly Martin Riggs-like performance from Gibson, it’s surprisingly good.
An oddball indie comedy from sibling filmmakers Jay and Mark Duplass, Jeff, Who Lives At Home (15) stars Jason Segel as a likeable thirtysomething stoner seeking meaning where perhaps there is none. Co-starring Ed Helms and Susan Sarandon, it’s a slight but likeable stroke of whimsy.
Finally this week, Plastic Filmtastic is in full-on, spooky black-and-white mode as it casts an irreverent eye on Tim Burton’s comic flight of fantasy, Dark Shadows.