GIVEN THEIR UBIQUITY on our screens, one wonders what could possibly be left to add to the vampiric universe, to make the beasts feel remotely fresh and vital once more. Certainly, if any brave soul was game to try their hand at such a thing, Tim Burton – that creative, eccentric filmmaking force par excellence – would surely be the one.
Since today’s varied vampire platter – of raunch (TV’s TRUE BLOOD), celibacy (TWILIGHT) and spoof (FRIGHT NIGHT) – remains fresh in filmgoers’ minds, Burton revisiting the cult US TV show that he and his leading man so adored as kids in the 1960s feels like a novel idea. Reviving a gothic soap opera for a new, fang-savvy generation makes sound business sense, at least.
There’s precious little time wasted, then, in guiding us in. Almost immediately, 18th-century loathario Barnabas Collins (Depp) gets his comeuppance after scorning a virile witch named Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), for a blonde ethereal beauty, Josette DuPres (Australia’s Heathcote). Cursed for eternity, Barnabas is buried alive for 200 years – and only woken up when a building crew disturbs him. The year for his rebirth is 1972. (Which happens to be the year after the original TV series wrapped.)
A dapper wordsmith out of sync with 20th-century tastes, he heads straight for the family pile he was so unceremoniously dragged from. There, he finds a motley crew of descendants, led by Elizabeth (Pfeiffer), and confidantes: namely, the flame-haired Dr Julia Hoffman (Bonham Carter). And it is here, at Collinwood, where the tale remains for the duration.
Eschewing the camp melodrama of the source material, for a typically darker, more oddball feel, Burton’s labour of love – yet another nod, it seems, to his isolated childhood in suburban America – never finds a firm footing. It looks typically splendid, of course, with a spectacular set (actually, at Pinewood Studios, in the UK) on show, and long-time composer Danny Elfman on hand to score with a heightened of the dramatic.
Cast-wise, we couldn’t have asked for a more Burton-like roll-call of prime, A-grade talent, either. Depp is reliably weird and dandy as the ever-disdainful Barnabas – this being his eighth collaboration with Burton – while Pfeiffer, Bonham Carter and Green all deliver as best they can. The problem is: there’s very little for them to actually do. With an oversized assortment of characters, none feel remotely developed: in Green’s case, hers is largely a one-note, one-dimensional affair. Similarly with Bonham Carter, little is revealed and, shockingly, we care little about her character’s fate. Cameos from Christopher Lee (as a hearty drinker) and Alice Cooper (as himself) feel more like afterthoughts tacked on in an editing suite than cleverly constructed devices. A cohesive, coherent film this is not.
Perhaps it’s simply down to the muddled content of the material. The focus appears to be Barnabas and his reconnecting with his family, while still haunted by his wandering eye from the past. But then sub plot after sub plot pops up to veer matters off their natural path. This was something of a hallmark for the TV series, apparently, but in a two-hour feature, it simply doesn’t work. You’re left yearning for something substantial to feast on. Which shouldn’t feel so troublesome, given the premise.
As a comedy-drama (or dramedy, to be precise), the gags more often than not fall strangely flat – something of a rarity for Burton – leaving the film feeling tired. If Burton had ever worried that his celebrated brand of eccentricity might one day feel dated or even irrelevant, that unthinkable day may indeed have come.
It’s not all bad, of course: Depp can still raise a laugh at the absurd with ease, and Green delivers a heady blend of sultry vengeance well. Yet KICK ASS’s Chloe Moretz is surprisingly wasted in support, as is Johnny Lee Miller, and the final denouement – when it does arrive – comes more as welcome relief than anything resembling a satisfactory resolution. There’s even a hint of more in the coming years – provided this makes its $US105million budget back with little fuss or bother. That seems unlikely, but you never know: ALICE IN WONDERLAND was hardly classic Burton, and that went on to become his biggest hit yet (and his first to pass the $US1billion global box-office mark). The world, it seems, isn’t about to lose interest in Tim Burton just yet, even with a misfire such as this. And since there’s one final TWILIGHT film still to come, perhaps vampires haven’t quite had their day, either.
Critical Rating: 5/10.
DARK SHADOWS is now showing in cinemas.