Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows”: A Movie Review

Last week, Tim Burton’s newest film Dark Shadows was released and opened to a modest $30 million domestic at the box office. But it is Burton after all, and the perfect opportunity to welcome another guest post by William Buhagiar, a connoisseur on all things Burton. Of course, William went to see it the first chance he got. Here’s his very favorable review:

When I first reached the age in which I was capable of reading the opening credits of the films I loved, I noticed a recurring component in a significant handful of the movies I watched obsessively: each one, prior to the revealing of the film’s title, featured the words: “A Film by Tim Burton.” My six (or maybe seven?) year-old curiosity inspired me to wonder who this guy was and why his name seemed to pop up in the majority of the movies I would play, rewind and play again. I’ve always been a passionate film buff, and as long as I have been, I’ve been a wildly outspoken, consummate Tim Burton fan: obsessively, repeatedly, studiously seeing his films, defending his work to infuriatingly-cynical skeptics, spending all but my limbs on ludicrous amounts of Burton-related merchandise and movie tickets – but also, much to everyone’s great shock, admitting that occasionally, Tim Burton doesn’t always make a great film. Despite the fact that he is undoubtedly my favorite filmmaker, I’m not delusional – he is not perfect, nor is he the best.

Mars Attacks! (1996) and Planet of the Apes (2001) are prime examples of Burton features that woefully missed the mark. His 2010 adaptation/re-imagining of Alice in Wonderland was also a brutal, sobering deflation of my arguably unreachable expectations; a breathtaking movie to look at, but ultimately a flavorless, generic Disney casualty that felt less like a movie and more like a product.  To prevent myself from experiencing the same bitter disappointment Alice in Wonderland slapped me across the face with, I put as much effort as possible into limiting my expectations for Dark Shadows, an adaptation of the 1960’s-70’s gothic afternoon soap opera chock full of vampires, witches, werewolves and poltergeists – a show that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp were devoted fans of during its original 5-year run on ABC. Admittedly, I was rather anxious about Dark Shadows, (Burton and Depp’s now 8th collaboration) and much of my apprehension came from concern that the supernatural vampire genre has been exhausted in pop culture recently, and the source material was, to put it as kindly as possible, a tad ridiculous. I was terrified of another disappointment.

Alas, I can say with a blessed elation, when the end credits began to roll after Dark Shadows, I breathed an enormous sigh of relief. Any and all previous cynicism vanished, and I found the movie to be enormously entertaining, and an instant classic, featuring everything I seek in Burton/Depp collaborations. Many non-believers mistake their excessive collaborations for overblown repetition, an argument that frankly, I’ll never understand. Sure, I’ll admit that their films are often bizarre, dark in tone, and feature a lonely, isolated and eccentric protagonist. However, if you properly examine each of the individual characters and stories they’ve created for two decades now, they’re all wildly original and unique.

Dark Shadows opens with a wonderful prologue narrated by Barnabas Collins, whose parents brought him from Liverpool to America in 1760 and established a fishing business in Maine and built their home, Collinwood Manor. (The production design is superb and all of the set pieces are magnificent.) When Barnabas breaks the heart of the Collins family servant, the witch Angelique, she places a curse upon the family and turns Barnabas into a vampire and with the help of an angry, god-fearing mob, buries him alive.

Two-hundred years later, in 1972, Barnabas is freed from his tomb by a construction crew and violently drains each of them, courteously taking a moment to apologize to one of them: “I am terribly sorry, but you cannot imagine how thirsty I am…” The following sequence is hilarious – Barnabas wanders about the town of Collinsport, Maine in a state of intense confusion, trying to make sense of gas stations, pay-phones, cars and paved roads, among many other puzzling fixtures of the 70’s. When Barnabas returns to Collinwood, he finds his beloved mansion in a state of disrepair and the family business run into the ground. The mansion is now home to his distant descendants: Elizabeth Collins-Stoddard, (The stunning Michelle Pfeiffer, reuniting with Burton for the first time since their genius creation of the greatest Catwoman portrayal ever), Elizabeth’s daughter, Carolyn (Chloe-Grace Moretz), her brother, Roger, (Johnny Lee Miller) and his son, David (Gulliver McGrath).  It wouldn’t be a complete Burton movie without the always-glorious presence of the goddess that is Helena Bonham Carter, playing Dr. Julia Hoffman, the Collins’ live-in psychiatrist, a pill-popping alcoholic.

The real stand-out performance here is Eva Green as Angelique Bouchard, the witch who cursed Barnabas and is now running her own seafood business in Collinsport, consequently responsible for the collapse of the Collins family business. She is an extremely compelling villain and her performance is explosive and her motivation intriguing – she chillingly purrs to Barnabas, “If I can’t have you, I’ll destroy you.” There is real menace and fury in her eyes, and we, the audience, believe every furious word.

Burton recruited Bruno Delbonnel as cinematographer, whose previous work includes Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, a stunningly-photographed film for which he deservedly received an Oscar nomination. In Dark Shadows, Burton and Delbonnel aimed to shoot the film in a style reminiscent of 1970’s films (horror films, specifically) for the sake of authenticity and atmosphere. Delbonnel’s work here is equally as stunning as in “Harry Potter,” and the cinematography will most likely earn him another Oscar nomination. I’m never surprised whenever a Tim Burton movie is visually pleasing (they always are), but the achievement in photography here is particularly impressive – especially when taking into consideration the accomplishment of the 70’s feeling.

Dark Shadows has moments of wild, over-the-top camp and many of the dialogue-driven scenes are over-acted to perfection. If the film wasn’t tongue-in-cheek, self-aware or took itself seriously, the camp and the soap opera tone would ultimately render the movie a failure. The film isn’t meant to do anything but provide entertainment, and it truly is a piece of good old blockbuster escapism; and I was delighted during the film to perceive it as precisely what I seek in Tim Burton’s films: you will never see another movie like this anywhere else. His greatest movies are always the most unique – Frankenstein-like men with scissors for hands, a barber singing beautiful melodies while viciously slitting open his customer’s throats, an eccentric, cross-dressing filmmaker, and now, an out-of-place 18th century vampire struggling to re-adjust to his new surroundings. Burton and Depp’s critics can say whatever they like, because regardless of their excessive cynicism, after twenty-two years of collaborating, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp continue to inspire.    — William Buhagiar

William’s Rating:

The Top 5 Films of Tim Burton

I am excited about this particular posting, because it is the first one on the Magic Lantern Film Blog by a contributing writer, William Buhagiar. Last week, I posted a review of Alice in Wonderland and in it I mentioned that Tim Burton’s films are hit-or-miss with me. Of course he remains one of America’s most visually stylistic directors and there are certainly a number of his films which I greatly admire and enjoy. However, in my opinion, there are too many that miss the boat and I personally cannot put him in the upper echelon of today’s filmmakers. Mr. Buhagiar though feels quite differently, as Burton remains his most favorite film director, which is why I am so thrilled that he decided to write a list of the Top 5 Tim Burton Films. He certainly can speak to Burton’s films better than I can, so it makes complete sense that he’s the one creating the list here and not me.

Buhagiar is a film student (New York Film Academy) and is a serious movie buff of films both past & present and in a variety of genres. I am also pretty sure he knew more about film than his own H.S. film teacher, as I’m not entirely sure how much you can learn about cinema from reading Us Weekly. In any case, I always enjoyed speaking and debating with William about movies, actors, & directors. I hope that he will enlighten us with another film List or article in the near future. Here it is….Tim Burton’s Top 5 Movies from contributing writer, William Buhagiar:

#5. Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Two words that immediately make me shudder: horror movie. At this point, it’s common sense that the genre is a barren wasteland overflowing with generic and repetitive cinematic trash. Yet Sleepy Hollow actually accomplishes what a successful horror film ought to: it startles, haunts and thrills the audience. Johnny Depp gives yet another brilliant (and highly amusing) performance as Ichabod Crane alongside Christina Ricci, Michael Gambon and a stellar ensemble cast. With a clever script written by Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en), Burton’s gift for projecting psychological phobias in visual fantasy ultimately delivers a wonderfully entertaining, eerie and unforgettable story. And believe it or not: it’s a horror movie.

#4. Big Fish (2003)

Many critics argued upon its release that this was Burton’s finest. With great performances by a strong cast, (Albert Finney being the terrific lead) Big Fish is another Tim Burton classic; a story of father-son relationships that balances all of the fantasy elements you would anticipate in a Burton feature along with contemporary family drama that had previously been a genre he hadn’t yet ventured into.

#3. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Considering the more recent stage-to-screen musical adaptations, Sweeney Todd is arguably one of the most unique. Burton couldn’t have been a more appropriate candidate to bring the story of the murderous, revenge-obsessed barber and his cannibalistic meat pie-baking Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter, one of modern Hollywood’s finest scene-stealers) to the screen. Naturally, the title role went to Johnny Depp, who was subsequently nominated for an Oscar for his haunting performance. For the many movie-goers who are biased against the typical dull cinematic musical, and prefer to spend their $10 on films sans show tunes, Sweeney Todd is a picture that may shift their perspective. Surprisingly thrilling, highly entertaining and visually gorgeous, Burton’s artistic vision was well-executed for this project. Let’s face it: what other movie features throat-slitting and human meat pies accompanied by song?

#2. Ed Wood (1994)

Tim Burton’s biggest failure, and also his greatest triumph. Ed Wood was a box-office disaster and yet the critics raved. Why Burton chose to create the biopic of Edward D. Wood, Jr., unanimously considered the worst film director of all time, is obvious. Burton grew up on his movies. He describes Wood’s films as “incredibly dreamlike…personally, I wouldn’t call them ‘bad,’ they had a very unique otherworldly quality about them.”

Johnny Depp (naturally) plays the wide-eyed and relentless Ed Wood, who continues to pursue his artistic dreams despite a series of absolute failures. During one particular sadly-comical scene, Wood stands at a payphone waiting for feedback regarding his directorial debut, Glen or Glenda, (an homage to Wood’s actual affinity for dressing in women’s clothing) and Depp, with a madly enthusiastic smile on his face, states: “Really? Worst film you ever saw? Well, my next one will be better!” The most astonishing aspect of that scene is Wood’s smile is never erased, despite the critical opinion of his film.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking and inspiring focus of the story is that of the relationship between Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi, played by Martin Landau, who scored the “Best Supporting Actor” Oscar for his performance. When Wood and Lugosi coincidentally meet while Lugosi is shopping for his ideal coffin (“This is the most uncomfortable coffin I’ve ever been in!”),  Wood is beyond star-struck, pestering him with questions, offering him a ride home, constantly expressing his admiration and discussing the roles Lugosi played that captivated him as a child. (Allegedly, Burton’s focus on the Lugosi-Wood friendship was an homage to the relationship between Burton and his own childhood hero, Vincent Price.) Wood constantly wrote roles (in putrid B-movies) for Lugosi, who was, at the time, considered by Hollywood to be a washed-up has-been heroin addict. He was removed from rehabilitation numerous times due to his inability to pay for treatment. Ultimately, Lugosi’s addictions led to his death, which Burton couldn’t have depicted with any more respect.

Although Wood holds the reputation of being the “worst film director” of all time, Burton crafted a film that ultimately pays great respect to the man rather than mock him. Sure, his eccentricities are showcased in comedic fashion, but really, don’t they deserve to be laughed at?

#1. Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Edward Scissorhands is the closest we’ll ever come to a Tim Burton autobiography. Burton has very often described growing up in Burbank, California as being a desolate, lonely and frustrating environment. He claims to have had a certain disability in properly communicating his twisted, fertile imagination to those he was surrounded by with mutual understanding from others. The adolescent Tim Burton spent most of his time in complete solitude, privately viewing marathons of sci-fi B-movies, old Hammer horror movies, along with the 1930’s Universal horror classics dominated by Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Jr., among others. Despite his efforts, Burton could never quite get his message across to the prim, “Crabtree & Evelyn” suburbite residents that he was surrounded by. He was certainly a misunderstood outsider, unable to communicate, and desperate for acceptance. But he was an extraordinary artist. And thus, Edward Scissorhands was born. Beginning as a sketch drawn when he was fifteen, Burton conceived the idea of a man with scissors for hands, an obvious symbol of his communicative handicap (the original sketch is now on display at the Museum of Modern Art).

In a suburban world parallel to the one Burton was raised in (only dramatically cartoonized into a visual environment of pastel houses, perfectly trimmed lawns and neighbors who spend the majority of their days gossiping about others), a kind Avon saleswoman, Peg Boggs, (Dianne Wiest) seems to be having a difficult morning selling her make-up products. Dismissed by a housewife who is in the midst of seducing a plumber and a teenage girl who happily applies toenail polish then admits to having no money, she decides to drive up to a ghoulish mansion atop an enormous hill out of desperation.

Here, Peg discovers a timid, lonely “creation” named Edward (Johnny Depp), who to her great shock has scissors for hands. When she inquires about this, he quietly whimpers, “I’m not finished.” Peg asks about his mother…and receives no response. When asked about his father, Edward once again barely gets the words out, “He didn’t wake up.” So Peg decides to take Edward home and introduce him to civilization – with an ultimately heartbreaking outcome.

The film is no tear-jerker; it’s not a melodramatic “Nicholas Sparks” story where an over-the-top tragedy is inevitable. And yet I can remember being 4 years-old and openly weeping by the end of the movie. Sure, it may be a bit ridiculous, but this is simply one of those movies that are guaranteed to generate a few tears from me every time I watch it.

Edward Scissorhands is Tim Burton’s magnum opus. Burton created a story that perfectly channeled his feelings of isolation and of misunderstanding. Essentially, Tim Burton is Edward. The film remains a universal classic to those of us who grew up watching it. Such a unique piece of imaginative artwork is absolutely unforgettable, and when it comes to the best of Tim Burton, Edward Scissorhands has the market cornered.

Peter Eramo Reviews: “Alice in Wonderland” (***)

I recall that there was so much anticipation to this film — ‘The film that Tim Burton was born to direct’ was what everyone was saying. Then, when it was released earlier this year, I hadn’t heard many positive things about it at all (despite its massive box-office intake), so I decided to stay away from it. Sadly, I did not get to witness this gorgeous looking film on the big screen, but I am glad that I did get around to watching it as I found it to be a pretty enjoyable film.

Tim Burton is hit-or-miss with me. Though certainly a great visual director who has his own unique style, I always felt he needed better screenwriters to collaborate with as many times it is the screenplay that I find to be weak, though he has made terrific films in “Sweeney Todd,” “Big Fish” and “Ed Wood.” Here, he re-creates his own bold interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s seminal work with an adapted screenplay by Linda Woolverton. Rather than having an Alice trying to figure out who she is not (as in the book), this Alice (a fresh young face in Mia Wasikowska) is seeking to find out who she is as a 19 year-old budding woman. In the process, Burton gets to explore the complex nature of dreams as Alice is never quite sure if she is awake or will wake up at any moment.

Alice is betrothed to an idiotic fop of an English nobleman who she really has no love for. The first few minutes pretty much beat you over the head with showing you how independent and unique she is — too much so. At her engagement party where she is debating whether or not to say “Yes” to this clod, Alice escapes and falls down the proverbial rabbit hole, entering the magical world of “Underland.” Filled with strange and unique characters – a tyrannical queen, talking animals, bandersnatches, knights and such – Alice finds that she is there for one reason…to slay the treacherous Jabberwocky and restore the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) to her rightful place on the throne.

The film is a visual delight filled with wonderous art direction, make-up, and computer effects in addition to Colleen Atwood’s imaginative costume design for these surreal characters. Danny Elfman’s score, though fitting, is quite easy to point out, as much of his work for Burton’s films sound very much alike. While in Underland, the movie is a treat to watch — it’s the beginning and end of the film, when Alice is in “the real world,” that the film falls short.

The performances here are wonderful and fun to watch.  As the despotic Red Queen with the enormous head, Helena Bonham Carter is deliciously fun. She is incredibly bossy here (“I need a pig!”) and barks her orders in quick, firm fashion. Though quite villainous, Carter does display a great sense of insecurity and envy towards her sister, the White Queen. You almost feel bad for her…almost!  Hathaway does a fine job as the White Queen who is committed to her altruistic vows. She doesn’t get to chew the scenery like her co-stars, but does an admirable job and has the right look/air of playing the good queen. The voice work of Alan Rickman (the Blue Caterpillar) is superb, which should be of no shock to anyone. His baritone voice is smooth and melodic and creates a great sense of mystery here. Stephen Fry plays the voice of the magical Cheshire Cat and he too is wonderful to listen to.

Of course the highlight here is Johnny Depp playing the infamous Mad Hatter. I’m not sure what to say about Mr. Depp other than the fact that I find him to be one of the handful of actors working today that truly immerses himself in a role and commits to the craft of performance in full force. A close friend and “student” of the late Marlon Brando, you can tell that much of Brando’s approach wore off. Depp has an uncanny chameleon-like ability and here, he comes up with his own unique interpretation of the Mad Hatter. He is sweet and gentle one moment, and forceful and a bit sinister the next. His lispy voice and eccentric manner (as well as his make-up and costume) fit the legendary character very well. He also plays a great protector to little Alice and there is a very sweet scene between the two when Alice has to say good-bye to her new friend. I found myself feeling great empathy for him throughout the film. There is also an incredible scene between Depp and Carter when he is brought in to her as a shackled prisoner. Great fun to watch!

This is a very engaging coming-of-age story where Alice has to figure out who she is, what she wants and has to find her “muchness” that she has apparently lost. Wasikowska, an actress I was not familiar with, does a nice job at playing the very demanding role where much of her work is done against a green screen – and her chemistry with Depp is strong.

All in all, I was upset that I didn’t get to witness this event on the big screen and I don’t see where all the negativity comes from — unless it was that expectations were set so high that Burton had to create a masterpiece in order to satisfy everyone. This film is not a masterpiece, but it is a very entertaining film that takes on its own interpretation while keeping the tone and feel of the book everyone knows. And though it does have a few flaws, I enjoyed it immensely.

Rating:   
Director: Tim Burton
Year:      2010

To watch the film trailer, please click here

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