Dark Shadows

When it comes to writing what I am supposed to or what I would like to write, I seem to fail to stick to my personal deadlines. Looking back at the last few entries, I have failed to finish my Imperial March challenge and there were quite a few blog entries that I had typed out in my head and simply forgotten to write down. To my defence, many life-changing events took place in these past few months: I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree in Theatre & Media Studies and Literary Studies, I am currently making preparations to move out of the Netherlands next week, and am furthermore trying to find a place to stay in the UK, where I’ll move in September to start a MA programme in Film & Television. On top of that, there are of course a lot of goodbyes and people that need to be caught up with before our ways part (temporarily), and all this leaves little room for the reviews that I’d meant to write – in particular, I had planned reviews for The Hunger Games, Snow White and the Huntsman, and House after the final episode had aired, but these may come at a later point once I have left my old home behind.

This, however, is not the generic nostalgic entry, or reflection on the past three years; I imagine that one will follow as soon as I’ve actually moved out. Instead, today’s entry is a short review again, and the reason I am going to finish this one is that I’m currently writing it on the train back from a friend’s place – since it is past midnight and I can’t focus on books in Dutch right now, my inspiration seems just about right for a brief evaluation of Dark Shadows.

dark shadowFor many, this may be old news: the film has been out for ages now and I was excited to see it even before it was released, but today I finally managed to actually go and see it. I was quite curious, even a little anxious about it because the later you see a film, the more opinions you hear beforehand. In particular, I’d heard many negative things, but I cannot say that I agree with them.

Dark Shadows is a typical Tim Burton movie and carries his characteristic signature in all the tiny details. Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter have of course been an ingenious trio that has adorned the screen many times and this particular film is definitely memorable as well (although, of course, I am biased because I’m a Burton fan to my very core). The film deals with Barnabas Collins, who was made a vampire for the sole reason that he broke his former mistress’s heart, who unfortunately turns out to be a witch (which should be a warning to most men, I suppose – you never know what you’ll get…) Not only is he turned into a vampire, he is also locked in a coffin for two centuries until he is released accidentally, and finds himself in a strange new world with new technology, new revolutionary attitudes, and a new family – the former nobility down on their luck. Trying to help them recover the family business/fortune, he falls in love with the family’s governess, much to the dismay of his old lady friend the witch, who again tries to destroy his newly found happiness. (Women can be so unforgiving, can’t they?)

The plot premise as such is interesting, although also quite conventional in the love triangle. However, despite many reviews, I did not consider the film “too Hollywood”. Although slightly more mainstream than other Burton films (no doubt partly because it’s based on a gothic horror soap opera from the 60s), it still has the Burtonesque flavour that makes these films intriguing on so many levels. Typically Burton, all the characters have their little secrets, their little bad sides that show so clearly that they are neither a perfectly functional nor a perfectly happy family. The interaction between the characters is hilarious and understandable, too, and presents real problems from rebellious misunderstood kids to neglectful parenting. With some of them trying to stick to some kind of tradition and others going wild, Barnabas presents a nice contrast to them in both his conservative appearance and old-fashioned speech. Especially the latter significantly contributes to the flavour of the film: he does not only have troubles coming to terms with the new inventions and attitudes of the modern times, he is also stuck in his old beliefs and patterns, strongly reflected in his speech. (And his first problems of fitting in with both his vampire nature and his family was shown so incredibly well in his cat-like problems to find a sleeping place; boxes, closets, ceilings? Definitely some of my favourite scenes.) This juxtaposition of the old and the new presents the probably most humorous element of the film, and while he tells the scorned witch to “strategically place [her] wonderful lips upon [his] posterior and kiss it repeatedly”, he also tries to connect to the modern times by seeking out relationship advice from the rebellious teenage daughter of the family. Stylistically, it conforms to Burton’s style as well, from beautiful scenes that have a strong German expressionist flavour to them (especially towards the end, and whenever there is something supernatural, i.e. ghostly, happening; and, of course, the Frankenstein-ish mob scene that is in so many of his films), to freaky, elaborate and unrealistic scenery, also reflected in the appearance of the characters. Here, I suppose I especially have to cheer for the witch and her porcelain skin – not only in appearance. Especially during the end fight, this concept was applied in a fascinating way, and it was well-suited for her cold calculative character.

Burton definitely plays with conventions with a focus on the characters, too, especially when it comes to Barnabas. I have (both academically and in my spare time) with different vampire lore, and this particular one – being transformed into a vampire by magic in the first place – was applied well here. He even keeps the connection with suicide, which is sometimes used as an explanation for vampire origin. Especially the doctor’s scientific approach, trying to make Barnabas human again (securing her slice of the cake of immortality, too) and preventing him from killing using blood transfusions, adds an interesting dimension to it. (Although, of course, novels and films mostly seek to find scientific explanations; you only need to think of Dracula or one of the more unconventional vampire novels I’ve read, The World on Blood.) Still, this aspect could have been explored a tad more, and especially the whole turning business at the end seemed a little rushed because his exact vampire nature or the lore that was used was not specified before; still, it made sense.

However, I have to admit that I would not consider it Burton’s best film, partly because I found the plot a little chaotic and random at times, mainly towards the end which probably conforms to the soap-opera structure that this has been based on. (The werewolf in particular was a little strange – he could have worked with this a little more, I thought, but on reflection it did suit the character very well.) The different characters, while well-developed, could have had a little more depth, too, or at least a little more focus. As usual, Johnny Depp’s performance was in line with his character and enhanced the film, but I understand the criticism I’ve heard so far: that it’s nothing too original anymore because his character (concept and performance) are quite similar to many others. However, as a true Burton/Depp fan, I wasn’t disturbed by it and I was entertained immensely anyway. I still think, and see in every new movie, that the two are geniuses, and that in particular their work together has a certain magic to it. (It may be a good idea for both of them, though, to take a break from one another for about one or two films to step out of their comfort zones and come back with fresh ideas.)

So, my final judgement? Amazing film – the wait was definitely worth it, and between all the strange Burtonesque humour, the brilliant use of puns (“Are you stoned or something?” – “They tried stoning me, my dear, but it did not work”) and many more things that I am too tired to mention, it was great entertainment and I laughed a lot. Just as dark and just as strange as I expected it to be; I can definitely recommend it. And I promise that, for future reviews, I’ll try to be less chaotic, a little more thorough, and probably more awake, too. And this is as far as my headaches will let me get now; there are many more things to say about this film, but this shall do for now.

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