Dark Shadows favors camp over story

In a nutshell, Tim Burton’s cinematic style could be described as dark, eccentric and humorous.

Anyone familiar with Burton’s previous work, including Corpse Bride and Alice in Wonderland, can attest to Burton’s unique aesthetic.  But his latest film Dark Shadows fails to capture the quirky edginess and grim humor of Burton’s previous dark comedies like Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Family matters · Several Hollywood stars, such as Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp, join forces to bring Tim Burton’s adaptation of the dark 1960s television program Dark Shadows to the big screen. - Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Dark Shadows, based on the original 1960s television program, follows Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), a wealthy entrepreneur working in the mid-1700s who breaks the heart of Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green). It turns out Angelique is a witch who seeks vengeance by destroying all that Barnabas loves, turning him into a vampire and locking him in a coffin for a couple hundred years. When Barnabas is finally discovered in 1972, all bets are off as he seeks to reclaim the honor of the Collins family, rediscover love and confront Angelique, all while adjusting to modern life.

In theory, Dark Shadows sounds like a promising tale of romance and revenge, but the film falters in its execution.

The biggest issue is that the film favors camp and style over the development of the narrative and characters. From the trailer alone, you can tell that Burton is going to deliver his signature quirky-meets-dark style, as indicated by a hyper-aggressive sex scene set to cheesy ’70s music, with Barnabas and Angelique literally flying off the walls and tearing the room apart in their fit of passion.

This unique combination of revenge and heavy stylization works, however,  to create an intriguing fantasy world. Dark Shadows wows audiences with its stark contrast of the rich and colorful ’70s against the cold and isolated life of a vampire.

And these disparities bring out the humor in the film: Barnabas speaks in outdated old English and sees a lava lamp as an “urn of blood,” refers to a road as “uncertain terrain” and considers a woman to be attractive based on her “birthing hips.”

Though these disparities bring a certain comedic flair to the film, Dark Shadows is overridden with the same tired jokes of Barnabas’ adjustment to the ’70s.  This thematic dominance restricts the narrative to a one-dimensional representation of Barnabas’ unfamiliarity with the modern world when the film could have explored larger themes such as family honor and true love in further detail.

This thematic favoritism (and thereby Depp favoritism) is a terrible loss, as Dark Shadows features rich characters and a cast dripping with talent: the strong but secretive head of the household (Michelle Pfeiffer), the blunt psychiatrist with just as many problems as her patients (Helena Bonham Carter) and the rebellious teenager who pushes as many buttons as possible (Chloë Grace Moretz).

The worst negligence of all, however, comes in the form of newcomer Bella Heathcote, who plays Barnabas’ love interest Victoria Winters. Between her innocent doe-eyed expressions and suspicious behavior, the governess of Collinwood Manner, Victoria, immediately draws attention, yet she is ignored for the majority of the film.

Barnabas makes his feelings clear for the audience, but there is little on-screen development of his relationship with Victoria, so when — spoiler alert — Victoria gives up her mortality to be with the undead Barnabas, the audience can’t help but feel it’s for a man she hardly knows.

It is as if the filmmakers did not have enough confidence in the love story, so they instead relied on Depp’s comedic talents and the overall campy style to save Dark Shadows from the critical underworld.

Depp is a charismatic actor whose talents should be put to good use, and the campiness gives the film a unique flair. In continuously exploiting his star and style, however, Burton has given the audience something that now feels hackneyed and overdone.

Dark Shadows had a beloved ’60s television program to work with, but instead of adding onto the legacy, the film weighs down a classic idea with an excessive use of dark humor and the cheese factor.

This is not to say that Burton needs to change his style, but Dark Shadows could use a little revamping and greater attention to the storyline. Audiences need something fresh and exciting, not the same old gothic characters they’ve received time and again; they need a step outside of the box and a complex narrative full of interesting characters.

Next time,  Burton should consider the basics before he begins flamboyantly accessorizing.

1 reply
  1. Dave P
    Dave P says:

    Exacly my sentiments. They could have chosen to stay true to the spirit of the show, and would have ended up with a scary, gothic thriller if they had – brimming with robust characters and supernatural creatures just like the show. And to the people who say the comedic option was OK, I say ‘why do it in the first place if you don’t stay true to the source’?? They blew it, and the box office confirms it.

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