Pretty is not enough
For some reason most people I have encountered so far in the film fandom seem to have something against Tim Burton. Tim Burton is like that fat boy with thick glasses and geeky hobbies and ugly clothes that didn’t fit. Alone at the best, bullied at the worst.
It’s probably not a cool thing to say, but I’ve actually liked the Tim Burton movies I’ve seen in the past, at least the ones I still remember (Batman is just a void in my memory, completely wiped out by the Dark Knight.)
I love the melancholy of Edward Scissorhands and the ghost story atmosphere in Corpse Bride. I enjoyed the crazy fishing stories in Big Fish. I even liked Charlie and the Chocolate factory, unlike many others seem to do. I haven’t seen the movie from the 1970s and my children loved Burton’s take, and that’s what matters most if you’re a parent.
I tell you this so you understand that I approached Dark Shadows with an open mind, hoping that the negative voices I had heard about it only came out of the foundless bullying. Sadly enough I failed.
Like a tunnel ride
Let me tell you straight away that Dark Shadows is pretty. Very pretty even. But prettiness can only take a film so far. I expect more.
Watching Dark Shadows reminded me of one of the tunnel rides in amusement parks, the ones you take if you’re like me and can’t stomach roller coasters or merry-go-rounds.
Either it’s presented as a “train of horror” or a “fairy tale ride”, they’re always the same. You see a bunch of tableaus passing by as the train moves along. They’re often pretty to watch but never engage you. It’s like a shop front where you see those dummies in plastic with empty eyes, dummies who never have lived and never will. Regardless of how much you try to embrace them or as much as touch upon them you can’t. The glass window keeps you at a distance.
I think the biggest problem is that they didn’t have a clear idea of what kind of film to make. Is it a comedy? A sad romance? A piece of drama about unhappy love? Or a horror film? Is it a movie intended for children or for adults? It’s tone is shifting and shifting and shifting, but it never mixes. You’re just jumping between the fragments, confused, like a failed béarnaise sauce.
[Warning for mild spoilers] I really wanted to care about this man who was cursed to be a vampire by a witch he ditched some hundred years ago, who returns to the world of living in 1972, only to find that this witch still is alive and still taking out her anger with him at his family for a reason I never understand. (Hey, she’s a witch; why not just make a love potion?)
I wanted to like him the way I love other miserable, tormented vampires, such as Lestat in Anne Rice’s novels or Angel and Spike in Buffy.
But all of a sudden he killed a bunch of innocent, friendly hippies, without showing the slightest remorse, and all my sympathies went down the drain. He claims that a part of his soul dies whenever he kills someone, but if that is the case, he certainly doesn’t show it.
This scene made me uncomfortable and I wondered what all the the 11 year olds in the theatre thought about it or what they made of the scene where one of the women who all dig the vampire for obscure reasons suddenly goes down on him. I blinked, baffled: “did that just happen?” But what do I know, perhaps I’m just old fashioned.
While a lot of effort and probably money has been put into the visual design, there is something very careless about the construction of the story and the world. Even if it’s all imagined, a fantasy world building on magic, you need to set up rules for this magic, natural laws that are consistent for that world. And I think it fails on this part.
Here we have vampires who one moment will be set on fire unless hiding in darkness, but the next scene they’re walking outdoors in sunlight with very little protection and seem to be fine with it. And how to they make new vampires? I’m aware of that there are different traditions, but every book every film, needs to find a method and stick to it. The Dark Shadows’ method is confusing. Do vampires come out of bites? Curses? Blood transfusions? Does it matter in which way you die if you become a vampire or not? There is no pattern.
The final nosedive
Despite all those complaints I was fairly entertained by the grown-up-fairy-tale and Burtonesque atmosphere until the last 20 minutes. That’s when the film takes a steep nosedive downwards, losing all sense and logic.
It’s like a grand finale at a circus, when they bring out all the artists on the floor at the same time, the clown and the acrobat and the elephant keeper. It’s too much at the same time, and to make it worse, they’ll even bring in new creatures out of nowhere and for no reason, which makes you shake your head in disbelief. “Whoaa! Why? Where did that come from?”
I wish I could love Dark Shadows more than I do. I don’t want to be one in the crowd, one of the Burton bullies. I’m basically a fan. But I can’t lie.
Cracked porcelain skin looks cool, and houses on fire are entertaining for a while, but it’s not enough to make this into a good movie.
Dark Shadows (Tim Burton, US, 2012) My rating: 2,75/5
My friends in the Swedish blogger network Filmspanarna also watched this film. Here are their takes (in Swedish):