Tim Burton’s Big Mess

Dark ShadowsThis is how I imagine it happened.

Tim Burton’s phone rings. It is Richard Zanuck and he is agitated. “You’ve got to start shooting Dark Shadows. The people at Warner are concerned about a new Twilight picture. They’re ready to pull the plug.”

“The script’s not ready, Dick,” Burton responds. “It’s in tatters. “Seth’s been playing around with different approaches. Today it’s a romance, yesterday it was a comedy, tomorrow it’ll be Gothic horror. We’re just not ready!”

“It doesn’t matter!” Zanuck says. “Just shoot the fucker and we’ll fix it in the editing room.”

Skip ahead a year.

Tim Burton is in Chris Lebenzon’s editing studio. The phone rings and Lebenzon hands the phone to Burton. “It’s for you,” he says. “It’s Dick.”

Tim takes the phone and Zanuck screams at him, “The Warner guys are freaking out. We have to have this film in theaters by the end of next month. All the publicity’s in place…”

“The film isn’t close to finished,” Burton cuts him off.

“I don’t care!” Zanuck says. “Whatever you have: it’ll play, it’ll play!”

At least I hope that’s how it went, because otherwise I can’t explain the mess of Tim Burton’s newest film. I should note that I don’t know anything about the original series Dark Shadows, except that it was my brother’s favorite show and it terrified me when I was five. But I figured that the film Dark Shadows would be something else completely and I entered the theater with high expectations.

The film started off bad, because I immediately sided with the antagonist, Angelique Bouchard, played with much gusto and perverse sexuality by Eva Green. I guess I’m kind of an outcast, but can’t a spurned lover kill a guy’s parents and turn him into a vampire without everyone saying she’s somehow bad? Johnny Depp plays Barnabas Collins, one of these Capitalist Barons who inexplicably exist in our “free market” economy. With all due respect to one of my favorite authors, I have come to despise characters like Mr. Darcy and Mr. Knightley who have the luxury of being noble given that nothing else is required of them.

And so it is with Barnabas. Angelique is in love with him. Barnabas is not so noble that he won’t have sex with her, but he is much too noble to lie to her and tell her he loves her. Instead, he is in love with Josette du Pres, played as the insipid character of male fantasy by Bella Heathcote. Fortunately, she gets killed right at the start of the film. Unfortunately, she floats around as a ghost for the rest of the film.

Angelique locks Barnabas in a coffin where he is trapped for 197 (?) years when some workers dig him up and release him. It is now 1972 and much hippy hilarity ensues. It would probably take me a couple thousand words to describe what next happens because the film bounces around more or less randomly. Let me provide just a few of the plot elements:

  1. The Collins family is down and out and Barnabas saves it.
  2. The matriarch tries to keep the family from knowing Barnabas’ secret.
  3. Barnabas learns about love.
  4. The scoundrel father of the little boy is banished.
  5. Barnabas falls for another insipid character of male fantasy played by same actor.
  6. Insipid character is given an unnecessary back story.
  7. Semi-obligatory music video of home renovation.
  8. Fish wars!
  9. The live-in doctor tries to become a vampire.
  10. Did I mention the daughter is a werewolf?

This is all over the place, hung on the spine of the main story, itself completely disappearing from the film for ten minutes at a time. That story: the fight between Barnabas and Angelique. And this too is very poorly constructed. However, and this is important: Depp and Green light up the screen when they are together. It is just a shame that they have so little to do.

Having said all of this, I’d like to see it again some time. The film is a mess. It could so easily have been good. But even still, it is playful. Johnny Depp is always fun to watch. The film is good looking. The special effects on Angelique were quite impressive. And there are isolated scenes that really work.

But The Raven was ten times as good with one-sixth the budget.

Update (Less Than an Hour Later)

Despite myself, I seem to be writing what are more or less film reviews recently. I am sorry about this. What’s more, I seem to have really missed the mark on this film, because I agree with most of the people who “reviewed” the film. There is one thing that I talked about—and was the thing I thought most about while viewing—that no one touched upon: its repugnant treatment of class.

When Barnabas is first released, he kills all of the workers for the favor they did him. Later, after learning about love from a group of hippies, he kills all of them for the favor they did him. He also kills the doctor for the sin of trying to become a vampire. The only one who notes the hypocrisy of this is the evil Angelique. There is a kind of droit du seigneur element to all this: Barnabas is above the law because of his position (as Lord rather than Vampire, but it hardly matters).

What’s more, Angelique’s story is entirely about class. She is a servant and I gather that this more than anything is why Barnabas cannot love her. After she buries Barnabas, she goes on to be successful in business, almost completely taking over the industry that the Collins family once controlled. The set up here is classically British: the vulgar peasant getting above her station and eventually getting her comeuppance. (See, for example, one of my very favorite films: Gosford Park.)

Am I over thinking this? I tend to think not. Humans are storytellers. And one of the most profound uses of storytelling is social control. Just look at the Bible! I don’t think that Burton was setting out to make a film that told working people to know their place. But it is certainly the case that neither Burton nor Seth Grahame-Smith[1] are great thinkers. They soak up the intellectual environment in which they live. If they thought about it, they might see the repugnant ideas they push. But they never do think about it.


[1] It should come as no surprise that Grahame-Smith is best know for the “novel” Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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