Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon May 21, 2012 5:57 am 
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Vampires in Seventies Maine?

Johnny Depp again, and Burton's wife Helena Bonham Carter again, but not in one of Tim's better projectst. A vampire imprisoned in a coffin for two hundred years emerges to his family estate. Michelle Pfeiffer as a wife, Jackie Earle Haley as a housekeeper, both rather wasted. Eva Green in a strong role in a weak picture. Because what is Burton doing here? Well, this is a vampire picture, about an undead chap who falls in love with normal young women. Such things bring unfailing delight to a certain kind of fanboy or fangirl, but in general haven't we had just about enough of them at this point?

What's not wrong is the special effects, which are excessive but lush and occasionally would have delighted Salvador Dali (blood turning into insects, a pulsing heart in a hand, a face that cracks apart like an eggshell). What's wrong is the writing, which has no focus or interest. What's best is the trailer, which prominently features Depp's absurdly ornate language and his amusingly pseudo-English accent. Green, who is French, does a funnily crude American one.

Depp is Barnabas Collins, of Collinwood, in Maine. His family built a fishing empire and an enormous castle. the better to stage vampire scenes and a disco party in, with Alice Cooper performing. Collinwood is in disrepair now, and Barnabas' enemy, Eva Green AKA Angelique Bouchard, has taken over the local fishing indusutry. She is a vampire too. She has always been in love with Barnabas. Question: if so, why did she keep him locked up underground for so long? But the rules of the undead are not much respected here, and for much of the movie, Barnabas shows off few of his vampire tricks. Then he shows off too many as this very diluted versioin of Burton's talents goes into general violent finale mode.

"Dark Shadows" was a US TV series that ran from 1966 to 1971, which explains why Barnabas wakes up in the early Seventies. There are comic possibilities here that are mostly squeezed into the few minutes of the trailer. In the ungovernable teenage girl, Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz) and the crazy subteen boy, David (Gully McGrath), the slightly vampirish matriarch Elizabeth (Pfeiffer) and Elizabeth's klepto brother (Jonny Lee Miller), did someone have inklings of a Addams family here? Julia Hoffman (Carter) is a shrink kept on board to tend to David. She is alcoholic and concerned about losing her looks (and she puts on a funny American accent too, but more neutral than Green's). Some weird doings go on about switching blood with Barnabas. He wants to become "normal" but she steals his blood hoping that by becoming immortal she'll avoid the need for a facelift.

It's a lot to take in but there is more, because there are two young ladies centuries apart that Barnabas is interested in, but Angelique gets in the way, both times. There also is a bunch of hippies, traveling in a VW van, of all things, whom for some reason Barnabas feels obliged to murder en masse after pumping them for info about what young people like nowadays. (Burton & Co. are great at staging fires and surreal transformations, but the joint doesn't look right.) This posse in a van in a vampire movie reminds me of Kathryn Bigelow's terrific early film, the 1982 Near Dark, about a working class vampire family who travel -- in a van. Such simplicity, originality, and authentic horror and scariness as you get in Near Dark did not, alas, attend upon the making of Dark Shadows. Bigelow was young and fresh then. Burton has made a lot of movies, some great, some better forgotten, and he's turned into an industry or a brand now. This is not one of his products that you need to go out and buy.

Metacritic's rating is 55, "mixed or average reviews," and that makes sense. One cannot really hate this movie but one cannot love it either. It's pretty to look at, and it has good people in it, even if they're wasted. As Mike D'Angelo commented they are working hard but with mixed success to raise inferior material to a higher level. They succeed only momentarily because the writing by Seth Grahame-Smith working from a story by John August based on the TV series written by Dan Curtis, is too diffuse, too scattershot. Too many threads are dropped, but to begin with there are just too many threads. The music is terrible and Alice Cooper's presence inexplicable. Has he been resting in a coffin too?

The specter of aging vs. not aging threads through this view of the undead. Have Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Michelle Pfeiffer sold their souls to stay so sculpted and beautiful? Or do such efforts really matter in Burton's artificial-looking movies where everything is altered with makeup, prosthetics, and computer processing? A lot of talent is thrown away here.

Dark Shadows was released May 9 in France, May 11 in the US and UK. Screened for this review at UGC Danton, Paris, MAy 21, 2012.

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