Now for years I’ve hoped to see a Tim Burton film that would allow Tim Burton to return to his campy, gothic roots and as such, I’ve been really looking forward to Dark Shadows, putting it high up in my most anticipated films of the year and I really wanted this to make up for the disaster that was Alice in Wonderland, second only to Robin Hood as my least favourite film of 2010. So what did I think of Dark Shadows? I really enjoyed it, it was the Burton film I have wanted to see for years. Now before I begin there are 2 things I should say, firstly I have never seen the original series Dark Shadows, didn’t know anything about it, didn’t know the characters, didn’t know anything before the film so you’ll be getting this review neutrally from someone who isn’t bias about Dark Shadows and secondly, there may be a few mild spoilers, I won’t give anything big away but there could be a few minor spoilers. With that said, lets get into my review.
First of all, the plot of the film is very ridiculous and insane but is a very Tim Burton plot. The main plot of a vampire from 1776, named Barnabas Collins, waking up in 1972 and trying to help his family recover their former status whilst a witch is trying her best to manipulate the events in her favour is very good. There are a lot of very funny lines of dialogue resulting from this with the character of Collins finding himself increasingly out of his depth in the time is a very classic fish-out-of-water storyline which Burton and Depp completely nail and provide their own little touches to the jokes, the best one involving a lava lamp, and the subtle changes in Eva Green’s witch in relation to the situation playing out is very well handled, especially a scene about halfway through the film which plays out as a fight/sex scene with Depp and Green really selling the conflicting emotions in their characters in this scene. The main subplot of Collins trying to woo the new nanny of the family, Victoria Winters played by Bella Heathcote, come off less well due to the limited screen time that Depp and Heathcote share together, you don’t really get much of a sense of the chemistry between the two because of this and it really harms the film in long run.
Then there are the performances and you can tell that the cast had a lot of fun with their characters. While some of the characters come across as slightly under-developed, you buy into the characters because of the strength of the performances. Michelle Pfeiffer as Elizabeth Stoddard is good fun as the figurehead of the family and her character is pretty good as someone who wants money and family and is slowly losing both. Johnny Lee Miller’s character is very under-developed and he appears on screen for so little time that you never really get to know his character fully, other than the fact that he is greedy. Helena Bonham Carter is great fun to watch as always and really sells the drunk scenes of her character and the twist about her character is very well handled and fits with the personality that you see of her. Gulliver McGrath is a pretty good young actor, selling the lonely and confused young boy who actually relates to Barnabas Collins the best. There is also a nice little cameo for Christopher Lee, selling the idea that Depp and Burton were heavily inspired by Hammer Horror in the design of the film and the brief appearance of Lee is great, if just to hear his brilliant voice. Then there are 4 brilliant performances which really sell the film, I’ve already talked about Eva Green in the previous paragraph, Jackie Earle Haley was great fun to watch, the alcoholic nature of his character combined for forced servitude provides an interesting parallel for the character and his chemistry with Depp is brilliant and fun to watch. Chloe Grace Moretz does a great performance as well, clearly having a lot of fun with the character and there are some things that Moretz does that I don’t think were in the script, mainly a bit where the other characters are having a conversation about the family and she’s just dancing in the background, it really feels like something that was done on the spot, she has great chemistry with Johnny Depp with their interactions providing some great laughs in the film and the fact that she’s playing the daughter of Michelle Pfeiffer is completely spot on casting as, I don’t know about you but Moretz and Pfeiffer looks almost scarily similar to each other meaning you really buy the mother and daugher angle of the film. But what more can I say about Moretz’ acting that I haven’t already said in my reviews of Kick-Ass and Hugo, in this she continues to show that she is one of the best child actresses working today. Finally, there’s Johnny Depp and he is the heart of this film, he is absolutely brilliant as Barnabas Collins, he is just over the top enough to let you buy into his vampire fish-out-of-water but he also has his softer, gentler moments which allow you to grasp him getting to know his family again and falling in love again. It also helps that Depp is really funny in the role and his interactions with the other cast members make the film as funny as it is.
Speaking of the humour, this film is genuinely funny, passing the Mark Kermode comedy test of having at least 6 laughs. For me the best joke in the film was a great joke about Liverpool, which I won’t spoil, which is especially funny to me as I live close to Liverpool and even went to see this film in Liverpool. This type of black humour, especially in the scenes of Barnabas going full vampire, reminds me a lot of the early Tim Burton films which mix horror and comedy really well, reminding me most of Sleepy Hollow, which by the way is second to Ed Wood as my favourite Tim Burton film, and it’s great to see Burton doing this type of humour again.
The design of the film is gorgeous, it really is some of the best production design I’ve seen recently. The mixing of the 1700’s and 1970’s cultures is incredible, especially in the costume department, mainly the costumes worn by Michelle Pfeiffer and Bella Heathcote. The music is also great, mainly the songs in the film being a great mix of the styles of Barry White, The Carpenters and Alice Cooper, with the main weakness actually being the Danny Elfman score which doesn’t really do anything special to the film like his previous scores. The best part of the design though is Collinwood Manor itself, the grand old-fashioned architecture of the building mixed with the 1970’s aesthetic is incredible with the room of Carolynn Stoddard, Moretz’ character, being the standout. This is the good old fashioned Tim Burton design that I love in his films and I felt was sorely missing in Alice in Wonderland, sure that film looked great but the practical design of Collinwood is a million times better than the CGI overkill of Alice in Wonderland.
Lastly I need to mention the finale of the film, while I’ll try not to give too much away I will say this, the finale of this film is a complete cluster fruit-cake (those of you who have listened to Mark Kermode’s reviews of the Transformers films will understand what I mean here). There are many different twists about the characters revealed in a very short space of time with some of these coming completely out of left field (mainly the twist involving Moretz’ character) and the many different actions all going on at the same time make it completely chaotic. But I still liked it, it felt very much like a lot of soap opera twists going on at the same time, which is probably something that the original series was famous for.
In conclusion, despite the heavily underused characters and the poorly developed romance, I still liked Dark Shadows, it felt like a return to form for Burton after the disaster of Alice in Wonderland and allowed Burton to go back to his Sleepy Hollow and Beetlejuice days. I don’t think that Dark Shadows will be for everyone and will be seen as a definitive love it or hate it movie and it could be that the things I like about Dark Shadows will be things that other people hate about Dark Shadows. Still the chaotic nature of the film, the really fun performances and the gorgeous design of the film are what made me like the film and I would recommend you see it.
My Rating: 4/5