In many ways I grew up loving the films of Tim Burton and he holds the most spots of any director in my personal Top 97 Greatest Films, so much so that all the recent attacks on him regarding his recycling and rehashing of material, no matter how illogical, unfounded, or simply talking-point-surface-level-dismissals without much credibility tend to bother me. They bothered me so much so that after seeing Alice in Wonderland in IMAX, a film that I found enjoyable but severely underwhelming considering that it followed up what I consider to be Burton's best film in Sweeney Todd and in comparison to his entire filmography, I wondered if some of these attacks were not entirely off point.
And then the trailer for his latest (of two 2012 releases) film Dark Shadows hit the internet a few months ago and I became worried. It all started out excellently, recalling Sweeney Todd, but then it indulged in comedy while "Season of the Witch" played loudly and I was puzzled. The jokes were lazy, the premise seemed thin, and it just left a sour taste. I should probably mention that I have no experience with the original 1960's 1,000+ episode series. Either way, as I walked in to the theater, I was afraid. Perhaps this was the turning point, perhaps Burton really has lost his way. Or perhaps, just maybe, I was fooled by another misleading trailer.
Thankfully that turned out to be exactly the case. While the film certainly has overt comedic elements, Depp and company play the characters with a serious quality that does not revel in excessive pandering. Yeah Barnabus is a fish-out-of-water, but thanks to a signature Elfman score Burton establishes a unique tone that blends drama with comedy. Even the soundtrack, which contributed to the silly trailer, is likely the shinning star of the film. Every musical cue feels so perfect, both in selection and execution, that it becomes easy to get lost in the 70's rock when the narrative drags a bit.
And drag it does, as the script is likely the weakest part of the film. Burton's aesthetic is brought out in full focus and the way he fills a frame and constructs his scenes all speak to his strengths as a strong filmmaker, but even between these aspects and the performances he gets out of the actors - Eva Green is especially great as the antagonist - it's hard to overcome a script that is so meandering and unfocused. As is the case with anything supernatural involving vampires, Dark Shadows goes the way of Twilight before it and incorporates a love triangle meant to propel the plot; however, it's so under developed that I was unsure why one third of the triangle was there (aside from her being a character in the original series, presumably). Had the film focused more inwardly on Barnabus's struggle between maintaining family strength and his lack of any real connection to the surviving members of the Collins family the film likely would have been stronger. That's the odd thing about Burton, even most of his great films have been penned by other people. He works in confines, and sometimes the script is too much to overcome.
As it stands though there's more than enough little moments to give me a feeling a refreshment. Sure it still is a farcry from some of Burton's great films, but the way he channels the energy that made him such a visionary filmmaker is where I found the greatest joys in the film. I'm biased, I'll certainly admit that, when it comes to Burton's films and I think that the attention I give to them is more concentrated than other directors with whom I'm less familiar, so I'm able to pick up on and appreciate the nuance in his movies. But in a larger sense I'm not sure that matters all that much because when it comes down to it, despite the lack of thematic complexity, Dark Shadows is fun.
As usual, check out all my additional notes that didn't make it in to this review, including a few tangential thoughts about other films, at the blog post on Processed Grass