Thursday, 24 May 2012

Mother Joan Of The Angels (Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1961) DVD Review

Lucyna Winnicka in Mother Joan Of The Angels (1961)...

"Maybe the trouble is not demons, but the absence of angels."
- The Rabbi (Mieczyslaw Voit)

Can love conquer evil on Satan's Earth? That's one of the central questions posed in Mother Joan Of The Angels, an intensely disturbing exploration of faith, hysteria and id in 17th Century Poland, based upon the 1943 novella by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. Adapted by acclaimed writer-director Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Mother Joan recounts the extraordinary tale of Father Józef Suryn (Mieczyslaw Voit), the Catholic priest whose relationship with a convent of possessed nuns, especially the feverish sister superior Mother Joan (Lucyna Winnicka), lead him to confront the basest notion of evil, and consider himself a martyr for her salvation.

Although the film has long been overshadowed by its infamous quasi-sequel The Devils (Russell, 1971), Mother Joan Of The Angels was the first cinematic treatment of the Loudon possessions which took place between 1634 - 1636, shortly after an outbreak of the plague which had killed more than 3000 people in the town. Interestingly, Kawalerowicz bypasses completely the 1934 story covered in The Devils, instead focusing around the aftermath of Father Grandier's execution; the pyre at which he was burnt sticks out in the barren landscape like a sore thumb, reminding us of the horrors which have beset this town before Father Suryn's arrival, and the horrors which will beset them once more.

In The Devils, Grandier (Oliver Reed) is accused of witchcraft by Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), whose fantasies about the licentious priest have been further aroused by the presence of Satan. When Grandier spurs her advances, and secretly marries the meek Madeline De Brou (Gemma Jones), her insanity reaches its peak. She reveals to Father Mignon (Murray Melvin) her beloved's secret affairs, and falsifies an account of his dabbling in black magic. This tale suits the dastardly Baron de Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton), who has arrived with orders to demolish the city of Loudon. He quickly supports the rumours that Grandier has bewitched the convent, and hires the eccentric Father Barre (Michael Gothard) to perform public exorcisms on the nuns. Even when Barre's methods are exposed as fraudulent the theatrics continue, descending into an orgy of chaos and delirium in a scene which has often been branded 'The Rape Of Christ'. Grandier is tried, found guilty and burnt before the crowd who condemned him, while Laubardemont sets off explosive charges and brings down the town's walls. Sister Jeanne is left deranged and alone, masturbating with one of Grandier's charred bones.

Naturally, Russell's carnivalesque horror greatly exaggerates the events of 1634, distorting the town of Loudon into an anachronistic dystopia, closer in design to Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) than any period piece of its time. By contrast, the Loudon of Mother Joan (the story is reinterpreted on Polish soil, but I shall continue to refer to the town as Loudon; Kawalerowicz doesn't identify it by any other name) feels disturbingly real - the stark, devastated earth between Father Suryn's lodgings and the convent are all that remains after Laubardemont's political bombings, and the remains - namely, the nuns - have been left to fester in its forsaken expanse. The minimalism of this land, captured in stylized black and white by DP Jerzy Wójcik, recalled for me the cinema of Ingmar Bergman, Carl Dreyer and Miklós Jancsó, but also carries through some of the symbolism from Kawalerowicz's Night Train (1959), the film which launched him onto the international stage, having won the coveted Georges Méliès award at 1959's Venice Film Festival.

The film makes fascinating comment on the duality of faith, but for me it's also one of the most unusual depictions of empathy which the cinema has ever produced. At the film's start Father Suryn is bound by his duty to God, but by its end that has irrevocably changed; he still believes, I think, in the Lord which guided him to Loudon, but his judgement of that Lord is less crystalline, less wholesome than before (it's probably for this reason that the film came under fire from the Catholic Church, who called it "anti-clerical"). In the opening scene we see him lying in the position of an inverted cross and reciting Psalm 51, which reads on its second verse "Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin." But following his meeting with the wise Rabbi (also played by Voit), I think Father Suryn comes to question whether this world is by its very nature sinful, and sowed of the devil's hand. Or perhaps he finally considers Father Brym's idea that God's grand plan allows for sin, so that the people may accept the Lord into their hearts ("Can you bring God to a man through the devil?"). After the nun's collective exorcism proves ineffective, Father Suryn decides that Mother Joan must be treated in isolation, and it is here that he develops unusual feelings for her - not romantic or sexual, per se, although the priest's acts of self-flagellation do become more violent, and seemingly more frequent following their sessions - but rather he is profoundly saddened by her plight. In one deeply uncomfortable scene she tells him that her soul is open to the devils, that their presence brings her joy, and that if she cannot become a saint it is better to be damned. Looking into her eyes he accepts that this is not the devil speaking, but Mother Joan herself. He is struck by her pain, ravaged with it, and understands that his quest to save her can only be completed by inducing an equal pain. He accepts the devils into his body and, to imprison them, murders two innocent stable boys; his body is now the cage.

But only following his meeting with the Rabbi does the simple Father Suryn reach this conclusion, realising not only the duality of faith, and that the tenets of his religion are cut from the same cloth as the Jew's ("You are me and I am you"), but also the necessity for evil where there is good. The Rabbi asks where angels descend from. "God sends them", replies Father Suryn. So then, suggests the Rabbi, God must also send the devils. The idea here seems to be that evil's combative force needn't always be good - sometimes a greater evil can prevail, and vanquish that which was present before. All man must do is invite Satan into his soul, an act which may only occur if God wills it. It might appear that Father Suryn's faith is shaken by the end of this scene, but actually it is transfigured. Upon hearing Mother Joan's plea, the words of the Rabbi crystallize, and he commits the greatest possible crime for her salvation. "Make her a saint", he begs, clinging to the axe which had freed her. We now remember that opening frame, of Father Suryn lying in the position of an inverted cross, another of the film's dualities; at once it is the sign of Peter's respect to the crucified Christ, and also one of the universal symbols of Satan.

It could be argued that Father Suryn was not meant to take the Rabbi's words literally, but here we come to the film's concept of id vs. superego, i.e. inherent evil vs. practiced faith. The question seems to be whether or not man needs to accept Satan into his soul in order to become evil, if the devils are already manifested as impulse and desire, emotions dormant in us all, and ready to be released from birth? Father Suryn imagines evil tangibly, looking upon the pristine white of Mother Joan's veil - at one point shot from behind her head, where she takes the form of a milk marble statuette - as the symbol of her purity, and beneath it the dark forces writhing, coursing like ink through her veins. Now Father Suryn is faced with a decision - follow the teachings of his own faith, continue prayer and hope that Mother Joan becomes free of her demons, or open his mind to the Rabbi's words, and follow the impulses which for so long he has denied? In these latter scenes we are confronted with an almost schizophrenic figure in Father Suryn, and Voit's astonishing performance locks us into the character's fear and confusion.

The more I write about Mother Joan Of The Angels, the more I realise that it could easily sit amongst the greatest films I've ever seen. Even now, 1400 words into this review, I haven't scratched its surface or talked of its magnificent music, lighting, staging and performances, or the way Kawalerowicz's camera glides through the story like a dove soaring above the clouds, as if this were some obscure, terrifying dream. Scene after scene it is a work of breathtaking spectacle and complexity, and undoubtedly the crowning achievement of early-60s Polish cinema.

The Disc/Extras
Mother Joan Of The Angels was one of Second Run's very first releases when they launched in 2005, and now, just two months after the first ever UK DVD of The Devils, their restoration - supervised by DP Jerzy Wójcik - has reset the quality bar they helped establish. The image here could easily be mistaken for Blu-Ray such is its depth and clarity - there is no smudging or grain to be found anywhere, and the black and white shading is more impactful than ever. The sound is also crisp and clear, meaning that this is not only the best version of Mother Joan available, but also the best technical achievement in Second Run's history.

On the disc there's a 22-minute appreciation with writer/historian Michael Brooke, whose stack of Second Run DVD's - tucked away in the corner behind his chair - must be the sneakiest bit of subliminal marketing I've ever seen (for the record, I'm sure this was not the company's intention). It's probably best to watch this video after the feature, for there are spoilers abound, but the context and theory he applies is invaluable and clearly communicated. The 20-page booklet features a discussion of Kawalerowicz from writer/historian Michael Brooke, who outlines the themes of the director's work across its entire course, and considers his role in the growing film culture of post-thaw Poland (he was head of the 'Kadr' film unit). There's also an exemplary essay by lecturer and editor of Film Philosophy, David Sorfa, who takes apart the history of the Loudon possessions and provides vital context to not only this film, but also The Devils (heck, he even considers it in relation to The Exorcist, Friedkin, 1973). It's a comprehensive and fascinating package, doing justice to an unknown masterpiece ripe for rediscovery.

Mother Joan Of The Angels is released on DVD on May 28th...

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (Brad Peyton, 2012) DVD Review

The unlikely cast of Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012)...

So rammed with shit! did-they-really-just-do-that moments is Brad Peyton's quasi-sequel to 2008's Journey To The Center Of The Earth, that after a while I began to suspect it of parody. I'll recount the most impressive WTF?! moment in full. Sean Anderson (Josh Hutcherson), the only returning character from that poorly-received original, is sulking in his bedroom, swatting over a coded message radioed in by his long-lost grandfather, Alexander (Michael Caine). The lad's beefy stepdad, Hank (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), enters, hoping to spend some quality bonding time with his newly adopted sprog, and, lo and behold, his marines service helps to crack the code. Following a mad scramble through chests and boxes in the attic, he and Sean are faced with three books: Jules Verne's The Mysterious Island, Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Dazzlingly, despite their different centuries of writing, the film implies that these authors were members of an exclusive explorers club, and that the scraps of map in the front sleeve of each book will, when combined, reveal one secret location - the titular mysterious island. Strap yourselves in folks - it's gonna be a bumpy ride...

Verne's eponymous 1874 novel receives the sole 'inspired by' credit from screenwriters Mark and Brian Gunn (cousin of Troma alumni James), although their story takes nothing from the source but its title, and Jules Férat's original illustrations have been discarded in favour of an aesthetic somewhere between Yes album covers (Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe) and that odd in-the-crate world of The Cat In The Hat (Welch, 2003). Actually, Journey 2 owes a much greater debt to Cy Endfield's stunning 1961 adaptation, starring the legendary Herbert Lom as Captain Nemo, and showcasing breathtaking effects work from maestro Ray Harryhausen (whose Super Dynamation process is much preferred over grubby 3D). Of course, this 'adaptation' plays fast and loose with all sorts of contradicting sci-fi / fantasy mythology, as the island is revealed to be the sunken city of Atlantis; previously sampled by authors diverse as Edgar Rice Burroughs and Arthur Conan Doyle. This city is apparently home to Nemo's submarine, the Nautilus, and its topsy-turvy nature means that small animals are rendered large, and large animals small (resulting in some cute pint-sized elephants for the kids). Not even cartographers could make sense of Journey 2's narrative mapping, but fear not, for story is the last thing on anyone's mind...

Instead, Peyton (Hollywood's go-to guy for lame sequels; he helmed 2010's equally unnecessary Cats & Dogs: The Revenge Of Kitty Galore) places emphasis on special effects and set-pieces, but this is where the film's problems become most evident. Journey 2's world is so densely wrapped in digital cling film, so sickly and inanimate, that nothing in it - including the giant topsy-turvy beasties - pose as a genuine threat to our heroes. Consider the scene where Caine and Johnson ride bareback on humungous bees, careering through the thick, soupy jungle, and dodging attacks from the monstrous hummingbirds on their tail. Did it ever feel to you like they were in danger? Endfield's film had giant creatures too, and I still vividly recall the nightmares they gave me as a youngster. Remember that giant crab, which was actually a giant crab - the real, tiny creature was disemboweled, cleaned, fitted with an internal armature and then projected, at 100x its original size, into the live-action frame! Harryhausen's monsters - including octopuses, prehistoric birds and, yes, giant bees - carried real physical weight; they had shape, texture and dimension, moving in accordance to their own limbs and sockets, and therefore they represented a genuine threat. Of course, nobody understood or could explain Harryhausen's process in 1961, and few could now, so the monsters still feel native to that world - organically grown in hermetic isolation. In the heavily green-screened world of Journey 2, everything can be explained, and therefore no danger or tension mustered by Peyton can be sustained. We don't care. We know Sean will get home safe, no matter how well pixellated the electric eel is.

All this time and I've neglected to mention the plot. Following their earlier revelation, Sean and Hank search for a pilot to fly them out to the mysterious island. Desperate for the $1000 fee, the ever-lovable Luis Guzmán accepts, and his teen daughter, played by Vanessa Hudgens, tags along for the ride. Naturally there's a crowbarred-in romance between her and Sean, which acts as another bonding agent for him and Hank, who advises his stepson to win her heart by popping berries off his pecks. Yes. This actually happens. Guzmán's strained pratfalls plague most of the first act, but once Caine enters the film, driving the exposition engine toward its final destination, some surprisingly witty banter emerges between him and Johnson, livening up the otherwise insipid proceedings. Ultimately though, the message is clear: when Brendan Fraser, the man who once accepted roles in Dudley Do-Right (Wilson, 1999), Bedazzled (Ramis, 2000) and Furry Vengeance (Kumble, 2010), declines the paycheck to reappear in the sequel to his last significant box office hit, you know the shit's hit the fan - and it hath done so royally in this ludicrous, albeit sporadically entertaining adventure romp.

The Disc/Extras
Perfectly functional DVD, although (and I'm cautious of recommending you spend more money on this one) you'll really need the Blu-Ray to milk the most out of Journey 2's palette - its colours are cartoonishly exaggerated, and they'll look crisper and better defined in HD. The smudgy green-screen and ropey CGI might not be improved by this process, however, and certainly the 3D edition is an expense too far...

The extras are expectedly slim, comprising an unfunny gag reel and six minutes of deleted scenes. Mostly it's just exposition which I'm glad Peyton removed, but there's one solid Scarface gag which made me smile, and might actually be funnier than anything in the final cut.

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island is released on DVD/Blu-Ray on May 28th. This review can originally be found at Flickfeast.

Friday, 18 May 2012

E-Film News: EUREKA! Debut Giorgio Moroder's METROPOLIS On DVD!

The incredible architectural skyline of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927)...

Unorthodox as it might be, I'm actually going to prelude this news piece with a slither of autobiography. I'll signpost the beginning of the actual content, which will hopefully have greater context and meaning following these two paragraphs.

Quite unforgivably, there are two very important people whose role in the genesis of this blog has gone unspoken and unthanked, despite their names really deserving an appreciative banner atop this and every other page on E-Film Blog. Honestly, whatever modicum of success I've achieved here - and it's not easy trying to distinguish yourself amongst the reams of online film writers who so passionately dedicate themselves to a dying profession - can be attributed to them, and that's because they taught me everything I know, or at least opened the doors to avenues wherein further knowledge could be attained. Their names are John Branney and Sarah Downing, and they were my A-Level Film Studies lecturers. I say this without the slightest shred of hyperbole, but if it weren't for them none of this would exist, and none of my loyal followers or colleagues would have been able to read my unchecked ramblings (I've no delusions of grandeur, there are some truly shambolic pieces on this site, and critical writing isn't something which comes easy to me; I keep them up as further reminders of the road I've traveled to this point). It was during those two years of college that my love for cinema really began to take hold, consuming me and beginning to dictate the future I was destined for. Whatever it would entail, I knew film would play a key role...

You're probably expecting me at this point to tell you about the day they screened Metropolis (Lang, 1927), but actually, they never did. A few months into the course it became clear to me that Film Studies would be where all of my college efforts were going to be aimed, and therefore I began sourcing books that would elaborate upon topics covered in class, and essentially act as a shopping list of compulsory titles. One image recurred, over and over again, in every volume about cinema history, and that is the image featured above. Before long I discovered the Masters Of Cinema company - now a fairly regular staple of E-Film Blog, and I'll soon be reviewing their Island Of Lost Souls (C. Kenton, 1932) restoration - whose astonishing two-disc Special Edition, released in 2005, simply changed everything. I became obsessed with German Expressionism soon thereafter, although wasn't able to pursue the interest until leaving college, as my time was taken up with exploring feminist film theory and shocking cinema. But Metropolis lead to me discovering dozens of films that really sparked an interest in writing about film, and from that interest this modest blog was born. Since then the film has grown in my estimation year-by-year, never more so than when Masters Of Cinema released the 2010 restoration on Blu-Ray, which I didn't get to cover due to the increased workload I was undertaking after my first year covering the London Film Festival. So, following these two shambolic paragraphs (I'm keeping the end up, at least), with the necessary thanks in place, I can finally get excited about Metropolis all over again...


Following their 2010 re-release of Fritz Lang's influential epic Metropolis, EUREKA! Entertainment are presenting for the first time on UK DVD Giorgio Moroder's controversial 1984 edit, featuring music from Freddie Mercury, Adam Ant, Pat Benatar, Jon Anderson and Bonnie Tyler. This Steelbook Special Edition will surely be one of the home entertainment highlights of 2012, and certainly I've been dying to see it for the past four years, so I'll reprint the full press release below for you to pore over its details...

In the era when one could still but only dream of a comprehensive restoration of
Fritz Lang's silent sci-fi epic Metropolis, esteemed pop artist/producer and
pioneering electronic composer Giorgio Moroder followed his work on Brian
De Palma's cult-classic Al Pacino vehicle Scarface by assembling his own version
of Lang's 1920s classic. The result was a zeitgeist-infused, high-kitsch/high-art
amalgam of some of the quintessential cinema images and then-contemporary
1980s pop-chart melodrama.

For millions around the world, it is this version of Metropolis - featuring music
by Moroder himself and artistes such as Adam Ant, Pat Benatar, Freddie
Mercury, Bonnie Tyler and Jon Anderson - which first comes to mind whenever
mention is made of the Lang original or, indeed, the iconic imagery and power
of silent cinema.

Special Edition:
  • New high-definition restoration from rare original 35mm elements.
  • Original stereo and new 5.1 surround audio options.
  • The Fading Image, a vintage documentary from 1984 detailing the creation of Moroder's reconstruction.
EUREKA! Entertainment are proud to present a new restoration of
Giorgio Moroder's cult reworking of Fritz Lang's Metropolis for the
very first time on DVD in the UK - a bizarre and beautiful retro-
futurist timepiece which continues to speak of the past, present, and
future... available in a limited edition DVD Steelbook from 23rd July 2012.

Below I'll provide the all-new trailer and several screen-grabs, including the new DVD artwork...

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Tuesday, After Christmas (Marți, după Crăcium) (Radu Muntean, 2010) DVD Review

Mimi Brãnescu and Maria Popistaşu in Tuesday, After Christmas (2010)

"You are my biggest disappointment ever."
- Adriana (Mirela Oprisor)

In his fourth feature film, following 2008's acclaimed seaside drama Boogie, Romanian writer-director Radu Muntean navigates the complex emotional mapping of three ordinary lives, all connected by love. Paul Hanganu (Mimi Brãnescu) loves Adriana (Mirela Oprisor), who loves Paul. But Paul also loves Raluca (Maria Popistaşu), and therein lies the dramatic rub of Tuesday, After Christmas. Adriana is Paul's wife, and together they have an eight-year-old daughter, Mara (Saşa Paul-Szel), currently going through "a pink phase." Raluca, the girl's dentist, has been cheating with Paul for five months, and has grown fond of not only her lover, but also his lifestyle. In the first scene, which finds them lolling around, nakedly, in bed, she inquires about what the couple have bought Mara for Christmas. They talk casually of the upcoming festivities, and it soon becomes clear that Muntean isn't interested in telling your usual tale of infidelity. There are no villains here, nor are there any victims. Raluca is not begging Paul to leave his wife, and he shows no signs of wanting to. Adriana is a kind-hearted and generous woman, not the irritable shrew who would have allowed Paul a dramatic cushion to fall back on; there's no attempt here to accommodate his deceit, or create clear emotional lines.

Muntean, along with co-writers Alexandru Baciu and Razvan Radulescu, smartly avoid the trappings of so many dramas in this ilk, refusing to identity with Paul as the singular protagonist, denying him an excuse or even a reason to want to betray his marriage. There is not a single scene where the camera observes him alone, with the film's structure alternating, austerely but not intrusively, between scenes with Raluca and Adriana. The opening scene is directly succeeded by an extended take of Paul and Adriana shopping; the insipid tones of department store music adopting an unusual sharpness when juxtaposed with the intimate silence of the bedroom. The shopping scene is perhaps the most important in the whole film, as it establishes Paul and Adriana as a couple, instead of singular personalities. We watch them eat together, lounge around on the sofa, visit the dentist (an excruciating and impeccably measured scene) and talk with friends. The mundanity of their life is something shared, something sacred, and something they have built together. So when Paul fractures that bond, his confession unfurling in an astonishing 10-minute unbroken shot, the impact is doubly shattering. Adriana is not just collateral, shackles around the feet of our newly liberated 'hero', but a lovable and defined human being; one half of a whole which has just been ripped apart. And for what? Lust? Or love?

Muntean never challenges Raluca's devotion to Paul, but we are left to wonder about how much of their relationship was built on impulse; desires unchecked. The catalyst for their affair remains unknown, even by the film's end. It is never disclosed how often they meet, or if these meetings ever entail more than sex. When Paul leaves his wife - from his own volition, it's worth noting - it becomes apparent just how little he knows about his new lover, her tastes and turn-ons, outside of the bedroom. There's never any sense, either, of Muntean as the prescient dictator - his characters don't follow the arc of any conventional plotting, nor do their actions seem manipulated by the need for closure. The director here acts as observer, as scenes unfold in continuous long takes, shot in 2.35 : 1 to encompass every character in the frame, and capture every physical gesture, however minimal. Their fates remain undecided by the climactic scene, and Muntean leaves it to his audience to put all the pieces together.

Several days after my first viewing, the jigsaw formed by those pieces remains messy and incomplete, but that's somewhat the point - relationships are messy by nature, they make us irrational and vulnerable, and leave scars. The emotional bruising of Tuesday, After Christmas materializes just minutes after its end, softly at first, but as time passes and the consequences of Paul's actions sink in, the pain deepens. These characters are so warm, so relatable and human, that the idea of them being hurt so profoundly is almost unbearable. We come to relate to them like we would close friends. This is largely down to the central trio of stunning performances, which favour naturalism and often feel spontaneous. Brãnescu and Oprisor are a real-life couple, and so the specifics of their relationship are more rounded, and the dramatic weight of the confession scene - an absolute masterclass from Oprisor, who channels frustration, rage, jealously and love into one complex, riveting sequence - increases exponentially. Popistaşu (best known to UK audiences for her turn in Tudor Giurgiu's Love Sick, 2006) brings boundless energy to the adorable Raluca, making it easy for us to understand how Paul could so easily fall for her. All that remains is for me to express my sadness that this title is bypassing cinemas for a straight-to-DVD release. Second Run have done an exemplary job in their transfer, but the film really deserves as large a platform as possible, as it's the best film I've seen in 2012.

The Disc/Extras
Spotless 16:9 transfer, approved by Muntean himself; the clarity of image is almost HD quality, helped in part by the distinct lines of colour and soft lighting employed by DP Tudor Lucaciu. The sound mix is also crisp and clear, although the film contains little to no music, with emphasis on dialogue and diegetic sound throughout.

Second Run are well-known for their exemplary booklets, but Damon Smith's piece for this release - three contextual paragraphs and a four-page interview - is unusually slim, and somewhat disappointing. Muntean proves an interesting subject, however, as he discusses the attitudes of the New Wave filmmakers toward the industry of old, and also considers his own filmmaking process and its results. The disc contains a 17-minute interview, dated March 2012, between Muntean and film critic Mihai Chirilov, which elaborates on many of the topics covered in the booklet. For the film alone it's one of the year's must-have releases.

Tuesday, After Christmas is released via Second Run on May 14th...

Friday, 11 May 2012

Dark Shadows (Tim Burton, 2012) Review

"Wait, are those... bell-bottoms?" Johnny Depp in Dark Shadows (2012)...

Succeeding thirteen years of sprung-from-the-coffin mediocrity, frizzy-haired kookster Tim Burton reclaims his morose mojo with the mind boggling Dark Shadows, an expensive updating of Dan Curtis' equally offbeat 1960's soap opera. Johnny Depp (who else?) stars as Barnabas Collins, the demure nosferatu living two centuries out of his time, catapulted into the swinging '70s after falling foul of the ravishing witch Angelique (Eva Green) in the early 1700's. Screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (currently penning Beetlejuice 2) hurtles us through an expository prologue, envisioning Liverpool like the London of Burton's Sweeney Todd (2007); all foggy shipyards, spindly forests and petite ingénues cloaked in silk petticoats. Here we're informed of Barnabas' backstory - the death of his parents, his affair with Angelique, and her jealous rage which lead to the murder of Josette (Bella Heathcote), his one true love. Transformed by the sorceress into a pasty-skinned bloodsucker, halfway between Max Schreck and Andrew Eldritch, Barnabas is entombed without hope of escape - that is until construction workers dig up the site some 250 years later. This swiftly paced sequence ticks off every Burton cliché with an embarrassing relish, Danny Elfman's score instructing every beat of the drama, and drumming the film into that coffin state of mediocrity - a state from which it soon, mercifully, breaks...

In many ways Dark Shadows is the least Burton-esque film the anomalous auteur has ever made, and in others it's entirely emblematic of the style he's been honing since 1991's Edward Scissorhands. Fast-forwarding two hundred years, the 1972 of Dark Shadows looks perturbingly normal, picking up with the young Victoria (Heathcote, again) as she rides the train to Collinwood, scored by the gentle strains of Moody Blues guitar ('Nights In White Satin'). At first glance Collinwood has an affectingly quaint small-town appeal - the little seaport movie house is playing a double-bill of Deliverance (Boorman) and Superfly (Parks, Jr.), yachts overlook the hangout hut-cum-café's, streets are littered with nostalgic vinyl stores and mini-vans shuttle along its roads. Lawrence Kasdan might make movies here. But Barnabas' towering mansion locks us firmly into the gothic arena of classic Burton, and a quick head-count of the supporting cast confirms the hand of its director.

Michelle Pfeiffer plays the stern matriarch Elizabeth, whose fortunes in the fish business have turned sour since rivals Angel Bay, headed by Angelique, became market leaders. A fabulously deadpan Chloë Grace Moretz plays sulky flowergirl Carolyn, who wisps around the dinner hall to T.Rex and spits out sarcastic remarks when she can be bothered to speak at all. Elsewhere there's the live-in shrink Hoffman, played by Helena Bonham Carter, and the hair-raising housekeeper Willie Loomis (very Scooby Doo), played by Jackie Earle Haley. Finally, Jonny Lee Miller stars as the negligent father Roger, whose son David (Gulliver McGrath) is still reeling from his mother's death, and believes that her ghost is wandering the house's labyrinthe halls.

If there's a problem with the wealth of this ensemble, it's that Burton and Grahame-Smith appear wholly uninterested in exploring the deeper roots of their relationships, instead concentrating the drama around Barnabas' reintegration into society and his friction with the vampish Angelique. Elizabeth remains nothing more than a sturdy authority figure, the tensions between her and Roger forever dormant, and the story of the Collins' crumbling business is brushed under the proverbial carpet. Despite her doppelgänger romance with Barnabas, Victoria never develops as more than (very attractive) window dressing, and Dr. Hoffman is treated to a lengthy yet entirely pointless subplot involving blood theft. Burton casts an eye over all of these characters, but never applies them with any personalities to develop, and therefore much of the drama feels flat. So, why is Dark Shadows such a return to form? Because in the moments that it works, it's one of the most compellingly strange and wholly entertaining blockbusters of recent years...

The digital cling-film effect which has plagued Burton's most recent work is entirely absent here, and DP Bruno Delbonnel (Jean-Pierre Jeunet's regular collaborator) offers up cleaner, more defined visual strokes. To complement his work, Production Designer Rick Heinrichs has crafted an extravagant and sumptuous interior world; from the frills of Dr. Hoffman's collar to the rusty shade of Carolyn's shaggy dog carpet, it's impeccable realised. Often the landscape called to mind another of Heinrichs' credits, Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events (Silberling, 2004), for its teetering-on-the-edge-of-insanity architecture, diluted palette and theatrical makeup (come to think of it, Heathcote even resembles a young Emily Browning), although Dark Shadows could never be mistaken for anybody's work other than Burton's. But in one regard, that's its biggest problem. Elfman's score is so familiar that it's almost superfluous, alternating between soft mystic tinkles and crashing drum/violin combos, adding nothing to the film's atmosphere nor the composer's limited repertoire. The 70's soundtrack is used more sparingly and inventively, especially Donovan's 'Season Of The Witch' and some live Alice Cooper cuts. Actually, the best use of music comes in Barnabas and Angelique's exhaustive mid-film romp, set to Barry White's 'You're The First, The Last, My Everything'. It's... oddly kinky.

The screenplay isn't quite as self-aware as one might hope, nor does it crank up the camp as Burton enthusiasts will expect, and fans of the soap opera will demand. For the most part Dark Shadows is played as brooding melodrama, but there are still chuckles to be hard, largely from the one cast member who's completely in on the joke: Eva Green. Perfectly cast, the Paris-born actress brings a smouldering rambunctiousness to the character, finding the perfect mix of feisty and dangerous, comic and tragic. All heaving cleavage and pouting puckers, Green overplays the character just a smidgen, performing theatrical pirouettes with her delectable dialogue, and in the climactic set-piece getting to grips with some fabulous Linda Blair-style head twisting. She's beautiful, smart and menacing, representing in part exactly what the whole of Dark Shadows should have been - just more fun.

Dark Shadows is in cinemas now.