Friday 11 May 2012

Revivals: "Dark Shadows"

Dark Shadows, Tim Burton's big-screen take on a Gothy U.S. TV serial all but unknown outside the Burton front room, takes a while to find its mojo. There's a lot of backstory involving lost loves and curses and people throwing themselves off cliffs. There's a lot of (admittedly impressive) production design, care of Rick Heinrichs: not since Batman has the filmmaker had this cavernous a set to romp around on. We even have to sit through the apparently unironic deployment of "Nights in White Satin" as a period scenesetter, which is as good a reason as any to lead one to side with all those industry experts who've already come to write Dark Shadows off as a dead loss.

Matters are enlivened - inevitably, this being Burton - with the arrival of the living dead. Johnny Depp's Barnabas Collins, buried as a vampire amid the rigmarole of the prologue, is reawakened in 1972: a cold fish out of time and water, he's bamboozled by Karen Carpenter and lava lamps alike, expressing shock that the youngest daughter of his flesh-and-blood descendants (Chloe Grace Moretz) has reached the age of fifteen without having found herself a husband ("You must put those birthing hips to good use!"). Ah, okay, we realise: this'll be one of those silly blast-from-the-past plots, then. Neither a gamechanger nor really an event, Dark Shadows henceforth wends its merry way, content to be mildly amusing within its limited parameters.

There's always been something of the bubblegum manufacturer about Burton - why else would he have empathised so with Willy Wonka? - and his particular blend may prove good for only a limited number of chews before the flavour runs out forever. This latest confection is far from his snappiest - it's airless in its storytelling, trying to condense several seasons' worth of plot and characters down to a couple of hours - but there are altogether more signs of subversive, independent life lurking in these shadows than there were in the dead zone of 2010's Alice in Wonderland, for one.

The personal and professional power struggles Barnabas finds himself caught up in upon his return to American life aren't laid out at all well, but it's a neat gag that the undead here should be found in corporate boardrooms and bleeding workers dry. The boardroom scenes, in particular, benefit from the physical exertions of Eva Green, here confirmed as one of the great siren presences of our age, as Barnabas's white-witch lover/nemesis Angelique ("succubus of Sin, harlot of Satan"), and indeed from a rare show of restraint from Depp, dialling down the fancy dress for once and letting his unusually expressive fingers (remember Edward Scissorhands?) do all the talking. (Whether you can overlook the surely unintended creepiness of the fortysomething actor being paired with not just Green, but the substantially younger Bella Heathcote as Victoria, the reincarnation of his lost love, is another matter.)

As signalled by the return of several recognisable Burton tropes - the chalk-faced hero, the doll-like heroine (Heathcote is practically a live-action version of the love interests of both Corpse Bride and The Nightmare Before Christmas), the "big fish" metaphor that still nobody's swallowing - this is the work of a director all too evidently amusing himself after several notionally respectable studio successes. Barnabas's revival is also that of the Burton who once made Mars Attacks! from a stack of trading cards surely only he collected. The perversity extends to pantysniffing and oral sex jokes, which perhaps why Warner Bros. have been reluctant to promote Dark Shadows as the family romp they might have done.

The energy level - the zap and zing of the thing - has been reduced over that decade-and-a-half, it's true; yours would be, too, if you'd been captured by Hollywood bigshots and obliged to churn out demographic-covering schlockbusters for fifteen years of your life. Yet the outsider's unconditional, all-embracing love of the ephemeral burns through as strongly as it has done in any Burton film for some while. Dark Shadows has the week's best Scooby-Doo joke, its choicest 70s rock star cameo, and its brightest salmon-pink explosion - and after the pallid, deathless disappointments of Burton's 3D Alice, these sparks, rare and fleeting as they are, were good enough for me.

Dark Shadows opens nationwide today. A shorter version of this review will run in this weekend's Sunday Telegraph.          

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