Thursday, May 31, 2012

Dark Shadows

Alternate Title:  Fall of the House of Munster

One sentence synopsis:   A two hundred year old vampire returns to his family estate to rebuild its fortunes and defeat an evil witch.

Things Havoc liked: What is there to say, really, about Johnny Depp? The versatility and breadth of the man's work speaks for itself, and while I do not love everything he's ever done, he's rarely (Nick of Time) not fun to watch. The same applies to most of this cast. I could write an elegy on the merits of actors and actresses such as Michelle Pfeiffer (Batman Returns, Dangerous Minds), Eva Green (Kingdom of Heaven, Casino Royale), Jackey Earle Haley (Little Children, Watchmen), or Chloe Moretz (Kick-Ass, Let Me In), every one of whom has proven time and again that they know precisely what they are doing. Even those actors in this film whom I do not automatically like (such as Helena Bonham Carter) have definitely turned in excellent performances. A cast like this assembled for the purposes of a quirky romp in the style of Tim Burton can't have started out poor. Throw in the compositions of Danny Elfman and Burton's trademark visual style, and one might expect something special. This is how Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice came about, after all.

And the visual style is indeed quite good. The film is set in 1972, and Burton takes full advantage of the cultural insanity that was the early 70s. Unlike some of Burton's earlier films (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for instance) the stylization isn't overdone. Instead of some kind of ludicrous over-development of what was going on in the 70s, Burton simply picks out trends, hairstyles, clothes, and other visual props that fit the era and lets them stand by themselves. As a result, the movie still looks campy and insane, but without looking completely farcical. Depp's vampire is done up in full Hammer Brothers regalia, contrasting well with the pastel lunacy of the era, particularly when (in one of the movie's better scenes) he sits down with a group of young hippies around a campfire. Meanwhile, Eva Green's witch is done up like a porcelain doll, complete with fissures and cracked paint, a touch I don't think I've ever seen before. Whatever the movie's sins, it certainly looks good.

Things Havoc disliked:  Where do I even begin?

If it sounds like I'm reaching for good things to say about this movie, there's a reason. This film is downright awful, and the responsibility for why lies upon the shoulders of one man: Tim Burton.

To begin with, this film has the slowest pacing I've seen since the first half of Hugo. But unlike Hugo, which had an hour of story stretched into three, the massive number of characters and subplots in Dark Shadows mean that we have two hours of story artificially compressed into one simply because the director can't move the goddamn plot without taking a hundred years to do it. There are lengthy pregnant pauses between and even inside almost every single line of dialogue in this movie, with the result that it physically takes three times longer to say anything than it realistically should. Scenes that could be over and done with in two minutes inexplicably take six or seven minutes to laboriously drag through, as after every line, the camera has to flash to silent reaction shots from five different characters, as though to remind us that they're in the film.

And speaking of the characters, if ever there was a case of too many characters spoiling the plot, it would be this film. I appreciate that this was a soap opera before it was a movie, and that fans of said soap opera will expect to see this character or that one. But soap operas tend to have casts in the dozens, and this movie consequentially has characters in it that have nothing meaningful to contribute (the father and doctor, for instance), but who nevertheless get generous allotments of screentime, further decreasing the amount of time we have to actually run through the story or the main characters. Similarly, what should be a simple cameo for a youthened Alice Cooper is expanded into a multi-minute performance set, as though Burton was actually stretching for material to add. The result of all this wasted time, is that the movie has to rely on multiple clunky scenes of "Allow-me-to-soliloquize-my-life-story" style exposition just to squeeze in the backstory of several characters. Even then, they can't fit it all, and one particularly vital piece of backstory is actually shoehorned into the plot at the last possible second with no setup whatsoever, leaving the audience scratching their collective heads as to where the hell that just came from.

But even when the plot isn't falling over itself, everything else conspires to take up the slack. I can't conceive of what direction the various actors in this movie were given, but it appears to have been assembled randomly out of a hat. Depp does all right with a standard Vincent Price impression, but Green seems to have been encouraged to chew enough scenery to choke an elephant, and goes so far over the top that she manages to make Johnny Depp playing a vampire look restrained and understated. Pfeiffer, whom I usually like, plays her matriarch role so woodenly that one would imagine she had never been in front of a camera before. Confronted with the sight of literal piles of riches that she can use to rebuild her family's fortunes, she can barely muster the energy to raise an eyebrow. Meanwhile Moretz, who was so good in Kick Ass, Let Me In, and even Hugo, plays this one in a constant stoner-monotone that makes it hard to even hear what she's saying. She has exactly one line that sounds like something a human teenager would say, otherwise retreating so far into caricature as to render her unrecognizable.

Final thoughts:   I love these actors, I really do, and my love of these actors probably inflates this movie's score by a point or so. But when I say that I walked out of this film unsure if my decision to see this movie rather than Battleship was a wise one, I'd like you all to take my full meaning. Simultaneously too long and too short, poorly executed on almost every level, if this film doesn't finally put the long-delayed nail in the coffin of Tim Burton/Johnny Depp collaborations, then I don't know what will.

If it comes down to watching this movie or Battleship, do yourself a favor and go see Avengers again.

Final Score:  3.5/10

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