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:
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