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Dark Shadows (2012)

Washing Your Brain Out with Soap

I believe in jinxes, which is why I haven't mentioned the ultra-cool and depraved piece of artwork I commissioned two years ago. The plan was to blog, Facebook, and tweet the hell out of the thing upon completion, and the urge to tell all of you about my incredible surprise has cost me countless hours of sleep. But I just got off the phone with Luen LaBas, the renowned French craftsman who'd been meticulously slaving away on my dream. I ordered him to quit working at once, because his services are no longer needed.

Let me back up.

A week after surviving the overblown CG snoozer, Alice in Wonderland, I met Luen in a Lincoln Square bar. He'd just come from the after-after-party of his first big gallery show in Chicago. His escort, Lola, spied me crying into a half-pint of ice water and asked what had gotten me so down. Three hours later, I finished my rant about the creative demise of writer/director Tim Burton--at which point, Luen handed me a napkin with a diagram of what would become his next side-project scribbled on it: a classically designed toilet with Burton's face expertly painted at the bottom of the bowl.

Charmingly, he snorted, "M'sieur, you spend so much time shitting on him, let me take it to the next level!" Through tears of relief, I hugged my new best friend and his smoking hot (now ex-) girlfriend.

But, yes, I just cancelled the commission. Twelve thousand dollars--gone. Well, not gone: I simply put the project on hold. You see, I called Luen after seeing Burton's latest film, Dark Shadows--the best movie he's made in almost twenty years. That isn't saying much, and I'll likely go back to hating his work soon enough. But for now I'm happy to celebrate this achievement and give him due credit.

I've never seen the Dark Shadows TV show, but I hear it's a cheesy horror soap that didn't age well. It has a cult following who I doubt will show up in droves for the re-imagining.* Not having to appease a rabid fan base on the scale of, say, The Avengers probably offered Burton a lot of breathing room.

But after watching the trailers, I assumed this was just another calculated collaboration from the guy who turned Goth fringe sensibilities into Hot Topic filmmaking. This is his eighth movie to star Johnny Depp in feels like the millionth time he's had the actor dress up in outrageous costumes and affect a variation on his Jack Sparrow character. The commercials reek of 70s kitsch and tired, fish-out-of-water jokes (Depp's character, Barnabas Collins, is a vampire who's been unearthed after centuries of burial; so, naturally, he assumes that the singers in a television concert are actually small people who live inside the box. Ha ha.). The movie looked bad, and no matter how many stories I heard about the actual film being tonally different from the marketing campaign, I couldn't help but approach it with suspicion and dread.

Luckily, sometimes PR turns out to be legit. From minute one, Dark Shadows hooked me. Burton provides a breezy introduction to the Collinses, a family of businesspeople who established a successful fishing business in Maine at the birth of America. They founded Collinsport and shared their prosperity with everyone in town. Barnabas fell in love with Josette (Bella Heathcoate), but made the mistake of scorning one of his maids, Angelique (Eva Green)--who turned out to be a witch.

Curses, betrayals, and death ensue, and through a series of events I won't spoil, Barnabas winds up in a coffin bound with chains--doomed to spend eternity trapped in the ground as a vampire.

Fortunately, his resting place is dug up in 1972 during a commercial excavation. Barnabas awakens in a foreign world of rock music, progressive culture, and drugs. His family also continues down the path to ruin, with the ageless Angelique appearing as a ruthless businesswoman bent on squeezing them out of the fish business. Barnabas seeks refuge in his old estate, which is now run by Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer). She keeps an eye on a random group of relatives, the groundskeeper, and a nutty psychiatrist who's been brought in to care for her nephew, David (Gulliver McGrath). Elizabeth agrees to keep Barnabas' secret in exchange for his help in restoring the family to its former glory.

I've given you the broad strokes; you should see Dark Shadows for the details. And there are tons of details. In a brilliant move, Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith port many of the soapy qualities of serial television to the big screen. There are plots, sub-plots, resolutions, and revelations aplenty, all hinting at greater story possibilities. The pacing nearly buckles under the weight of the blood-transfusion storyline, and an utterly ridiculous climax twist, but overall, this is the kind of rich, complex entertainment Tim Burton used to make.

Comparisons to the Addams Family movies are unavoidable and, in all honesty, warranted. Depp plays Barnabas as a stuffy relic whose propriety belies the bloodthirsty animal within, leading to moments both comedic and horrific. Burton plays with audience expectation here, especially in a scene where Barnabas confides his unease around women in a group of peaceniks--before announcing that he's going to kill all of them. The line is played for laughs, but the audience barely has time to chuckle before he actually eats his newfound confidants alive.

The film plays equally well as a comedy and a drama, but stumbles drunkenly into action/effects territory towards the end. While the explosions and bodies flying through the air at least spared me from the five-hundredth speech about the importance of family, I could have done with a less blustery climax. Most of the movie feels like a comfy fall release, but Barnabas' drag-out CG brawl with Angelique is pure summer popcorn--which is to say, cheap and stale.

Despite a couple of gripes, I stand by my earlier comment about this being one of Burton's best. This is his most genuine expression of melancholy and doomed love since Edward Scissorhands, and his best use of Depp as a vehicle for off-beat acting since Ed Wood. Hell, Depp isn't even the film's biggest draw: Burton has assembled a powerhouse of sexy, confident women whose characters challenge the vain hero's sense of power and self. By film's end, the out-of-touch vampire is neither the strongest nor the strangest creature in Collinsport, and I'd kill to see a Collins Girls spin-off movie.

So, yes, I'm glad to see Tim Burton hang up his Xeroxed curlicue design sensibilities and tell Danny Elfman to start working for a living again. Dark Shadows is perhaps my favorite of his recent movies precisely because it doesn't feel so Burton-y. It's restrained and engaging when it needs to be, and unexpectedly fun when fun is called for--unlike Willy Wonka, Sweeney Todd, and Big Fish, which felt like the sloppy result of filmmaker absenteeism.

Luen, if you're reading this, please take care of my exclusive, unfinished toilet. I may yet need it. Unless Burton has turned some kind of corner--in which case I'll happily fork over twelve grand for the privilege of knowing that I'll no longer be bored watching his films.

*Or plunk down four-hundred bucks for the hundred-and-thirty-one-disc-DVD set of the series.

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