"Dark Shadows" finally hit theaters Friday (May 11), and let me tell you, it's a doozy. There's a lot to admire about Tim Burton's reimagined "Shadows" (and there are some problems as well), but the question that has lingered with me most since seeing the film is who exactly Tim Burton made it for.
I'm not sure it was "Shadows" purists, those who ran home from school to soak up the strange, dark and wonderful late-'60s soap opera and who still have a strong connection to the style and feel of the original. It's probably not for fans of Burton and Johnny Depp's earlier collaborations either, even though the trailers and TV spots sell it like it's supposed to be.
"Shadows" has long been talked about as a passion project for Burton and Depp, so in the end, maybe they made it for themselves. And the thing is, up until the very last 15 or so minutes, I was right there with them: Their affection for the original is clear, the performances are uniformly wonderful and it gives Burton room to breathe in a way we haven't seen in years. It's unfortunate that its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink conclusion feels strangely tacked on, because until then "Shadows" is the best thing the pair have done together since Depp gave one of his finest performances in Burton's touchingly bizarre 1994 film "Ed Wood."
Barnabas Collins isn't anything like Depp's crazed Mad Hatter from "Alice in Wonderland" or his maniacal Willy Wonka from "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Don't be fooled by the jump-cut trailer — it actually falls among his more reserved performances. The zingers that seem borderline farcical in the trailer work better than you expect — they certainly earned hearty laughs from the audience when I saw the flick — and are peppered throughout, lending a more even tone than I expected.
Depp's Barnabas is an old-fashioned gentleman trapped in the body of a monster, and the actor never lets that fact get lost, even when the film's myriad subplots pull him in a hundred different directions. His vampire is far more human than the actor sometimes seems in movies in which his character's heart is still beating.
In a testament to how winning Depp is, he's able to play a 200-year-old vampire in (occasionally too obvious) white makeup without sucking all the air out the room, leaving room for the supporting players to soar. Most notable are Michelle Pfeiffer and Eva Green.
Pfeiffer is in full-on grande dame mode as family matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard. It's a kick to see the thrice Oscar-nominated actress get a meaty role in a big picture like this, and she does not waste the opportunity, providing the entire affair with some much-needed grounding. Her gaze is steely and she carries herself regally, though years of hardship have clearly chipped away at her character's resolve, all of which comes across like a metaphor for the crumbling estate she guards, Collinwood.
Green is a four-alarm hoot as the evil witch Angelique Bouchard, or Angie, as she's come to be known by the townspeople in Collinsport, where she's reinvented herself as a fishing magnate specifically to take down the Collins family business. Sure, she's an evil witch who has been tormenting the Collins family for centuries, but these days she's more of a cherry-red-convertible-driving good-time girl — albeit one with grudge that runs deep. Green chews the scenery and spits it out, which works like gangbusters in an over-the-top movie like this. She's so game throughout, you almost find yourself rooting for the bad guy.
As for Burton's direction, there's an unexpected streak of sentimentality and nostalgia running through "Shadows" that recalls "Big Fish" as much as it does the film's more logical brothers ("Sleepy Hollow," "Beetlejuice"). Operating on sets instead of green-screen soundstages, he hasn't set his "Shadows" in a cartoon. Collinsport feels like a real place — the family manor has character, and there's Gothic atmosphere to spare.
We haven't hit on the story too much because, well, there's a lot of it. In his rush to cover as much ground from the series as possible (and leave the door open for possible sequels), screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith is a little too quick to truncate story lines that were developed over a more than thousand-episode run on the soap. It's all hung broadly on the milestones of Barnabas' attempts to reinvigorate the family business while courting Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote) and acclimate to the many changes that have happened during the 200 years he was entombed.
Consider Barnabas' attempts to make himself mortal again with the help of Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter, bringing as much drunk fun as she can to an otherwise thankless part). It was the through line of the early-'90s revamp of "Shadows" but is a side note here — one saddled with an unnecessary added twist.
But with more working than not, we were willing to forgive that lack of focus until things took a fiery final turn. Perhaps unable to find a reasonable way to wrap up the many story lines, Grahame-Smith and Burton take things a little too far off the rails with a noisy and scattered climax that doesn't make much sense. Even the actors seem unsure of what's happening, and Depp, Pfeiffer and Green struggle to stay afloat amid all the noise.
(We're not even going to go there with the last-minute plot twist tossed at Chloë Moretz's character.)
"Shadows" will almost certainly leave casual fans baffled, not because it's bad (to be fair, some in the MTV Newsroom were not as turned off by the ending as we were), but because it's a passion project wearing the mask of a summer blockbuster.
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