Note: This is a new feature that I’m trying out, one in which I review both a film and its soundtrack album in the same piece. Ideally, this feature will both offer a place to examine the relationship between a film and its score, while also allowing space to appreciate both as separate entities. If these go over well, I will try to make them a regular feature here.
Danny Elfman’s relationship with Tim Burton now encompasses fourteen films and countless smaller projects – it is probably second only to that of Steven Spielberg and John Williams as the most famous composer-director relationship in Hollywood history (no shame in Number 3, Herrmann and Hitchcock!). With so much time spent together, one would think that the two might run the risk of learning each other’s ticks and falling into grooves. So far, however, this has not been the case, largely because Elfman and Burton’s relationship has always been built upon a foundation of cognitive dissonance. Where John Williams generally re-articulates with music exactly what Spielberg is communicating with images, Elfman tends to find ways under and around Burton’s visual content. If Burton gives us a menacing looking figure with blades for hands, Elfman responds with a fragile and bittersweet lullaby. If Burton gives us a candy-colored chocolate factory, Elfman gives us a somber dirge that makes the factory feel more like a prison. The music always ends up communicating the underlying emotion under Burton’s image, but it’s rarely an emotion that seems immediately obvious. These constantly unexpected tonal juxtapositions are largely what have kept Burton and Elfman’s audio-visual collaboration consistently interesting, even when the films themselves have varied in quality.
Understand, however, that when I say that the quality of Burton’s films sometimes flags, understand that I am not jumping on the “Tim Burton hasn’t made a good or original film in decades” bandwagon. This is a criticism that tends to come up every time Burton makes a film that a critic doesn’t like, and it tends to reflect the short-term memory of the writer more than Burton’s career itself. I certainly agree that Planet of the Apes and Alice in Wonderland were misfires (though certainly not commercially), but in the past decade, Burton also made Big Fish, The Corpse Bride, and Sweeney Todd – all critically acclaimed films that represent new steps forward for the director. It’s true that Burton does have a signature aesthetic, and he does return to similar themes. But he has not simply been repeating the same themes ad nauseam for three decades – he’s been developing them. Where Burton once fixated on loners who are cast out of communities, he now seems more interested in the possibility of integrating his loners into those communities. Since Big Fish in 2003, his films have been exploring the extent to which the prototypical Burton misfit has a place inside a family unit. Edward Bloom, Willy Wonka, and Mrs. Lovett are all fiercely individualistic misfits who nevertheless find themselves torn between their desire for freedom and their desire for a nurturing family. The extent to which these characters are able to find some version of happiness tends to depend upon their ability to balance those two desires.
This theme was admittedly all-but-absent in Alice in Wonderland, which felt more like Burton illustrating a video game than Burton propelling his own personal narrative. But it’s more pronounced than ever in Dark Shadows, an uneven film that nevertheless feels like a return to Burton’s personal style of filmmaking. While nominally a gothic love story, much of the film’s heart lies in vampire Barnabus Collins’ relationship with his family. Barnabus is a 18th century nobleman who is cursed, turned into a vampire, and then entombed for two centuries. When he is accidentally unearthed in the 1970s, his first impulse is to seek out his modern-day ancestors and re-integrate himself into the Collins family. While driven in part by aristocratic pride, Barnabus displays genuine affection for his new great-grand nieces and nephews, and he seems to find true fulfillment from their company. The message – that families provide a community for people who might never be accepted elsewhere – is admittedly very on the nose. Barnabus habitually spurts out words of wisdom from his father about “family being the greatest treasure,” and unlike Big Fish or Sweeney Todd, Dark Shadows doesn’t seem particularly interested in complicating this message. But the family theme does lead to several of the film’s most moving moments, from Collins’ handling of a young boy’s negligent father to the vampire’s awkwardly endearing attempts to connect with the family’s surly teenager. Depp plays the character with un-ironic conviction, and he sells scenes that might veer into either camp or sentiment in other hands.
Having said that, the film is frustrating from a narrative perspective. The film’s central romance hangs on the premise that Barnabus Collins and Maggie Evans, a young caretaker who seems to be some reincarnated version of Collins’ fiancé, are soul mates. But because Burton spends so much time going off on tangents and exploring every nook and cranny of the world he’s created, the lovers only have a few short scenes together. Our emotional investment in their relationship is thus never as strong as it should be. An otherwise beautifully-executed final sequence between the two characters might have equaled the melodramatic weepiness of Edward Scissorhands, but it falls short because the film never takes the time to make us care about their relationship.
But because what Burton sacrifices in storytelling, he makes up in freedom. After the confining quest-driven nature of Alice in Wonderland, it’s refreshing to see Burton following his nose. He seems happy to explore odd little scenes and moments for the sheer pleasure of exploring, and the feeling is infectious. Burton seems ultimately more interested in watching Barnabus’s interactions with the various members of the household than he is in advancing narrative, and while some of these tangents never go anywhere, they help in selling Barnabus’s growing attachment to his new family. That this familial aspect of the film is ultimately far more believable than the love story is perhaps completely fitting for modern-day Burton.
Elfman’s score is oddly positioned in the film. One would think that a gothic Tim Burton film filled with werewolves and vampires would be the sort of thing that Elfman could write on autopilot. And it’s true, the opening and closing sequence do recall Elfman’s earlier work in the genre. The bookending scenes on Widow’s Hill receive outlandishly gothic tragedy, music that works as a cross between the operatic lyricism of his score to Sleepy Hollow and the primitive bombast of his score to The Wolfman (Elfman fans might recognize this music as a de-Kilared version of Elfman’s Wolfman theme – the racing arrangement is nearly identical, but Elfman has replaced Wolfman‘s Wojciech Kilar-inspired Slavic theme with a melody that is 100% his own). These scenes are driven by a remarkably long-lined melody, one that races through gothic melodrama with grandiose abandon. It’s nothing particularly new, but these sequences provide vividly powerful illustrations of signature Elfman at his best.
Apart from these bookends, however, the score is a remarkable change of pace for the composer. With a few exceptions, Elfman’s score is little invested in selling the emotional side of the film – any resonance that comes from Barnabus’s relationship with his family comes primarily through the performances and not the music. Rather, the film uses music primarily for atmosphere – the score functions as an extension of the film’s unsettling environment. Elfman’s unrelentingly somber tone often works as an anchor, giving the film a serious foundation even when silly fish-out-of-water gags are occurring onscreen. If Elfman’s music was an extension of the characters in previous Burton films, in Dark Shadows his music is an extension of the world that the characters inhabit.
It’s the uniqueness of that sonic world that really makes the score something special. Because the film is an adaptation of a 1970s soap opera, Dark Shadows already comes with a musical heritage. This is not the first time Elfman and Burton have tackled material with a pre-existing musical background, but it is the first time that they’ve actually paid attention to it. Rather than approach the film from his typical quirky and whimsical standpoint, Elfman has actually made a remarkable effort to recreate the sound of a 1970s horror film. Some of this comes in the form for homage to the original soap opera’s music – in key sequences, Elfman actually integrates Robert Cobert’s eerie 1970s Dark Shadows theme seamlessly into his own thematic material. But the score also plays as a larger homage to music in ‘70s cult horror films in general (particularly the work of Les Baxter, whose psychedelic score for The Dunwich Horror feels like a very close cousin to this one). The ensemble is generally chamber-sized, with an emphasis on vibes, vintage analogue synthesizers, wind effects, and most prominently, bass flutes. It’s a sound that should be familiar to anybody who’s familiar with Hammer horror films or the Roger Corman/Vincent Price Poe adaptations, but it’s also a sound that popular culture has all but forgotten.
With that in mind, what Elfman does with this score is actually quite incredible. Modern day films will occasionally go for a retro sound, but these films tend to aim for easily recognizable targets – Golden Age melodrama, ‘60s swinging spy music, Spaghetti Western anthems, and so on. These are musical idioms that have become instant associations in the collective cultural consciousness, and evoking them is generally as easy as referencing a few superficial signifiers (i.e., an electric guitar lick modeled after The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, or James Bond’s chord progression). What’s rare is something like Dark Shadows, where a composer painstakingly recreates a sound that virtually no one remembers. If anybody who isn’t already intimately familiar with the source material recognizes the music, they recognize it on an entirely subconscious level. That Elfman has managed to evoke this forgotten auditory world – and to evoke it so exhaustingly – is remarkable.
It also reminds us of what we’re missing in modern horror films. Elfman crafts a genuinely haunted soundscape, one that scares without reverting to shock stingers or atonal cacophony. Conventional effects like that are powerful too, and Elfman has certainly used them a fair amount himself in his time. But there’s something unique about the sound he’s tapping into in Dark Shadows, something that chills on a more sensory level. His approach is subtle – so subtle that I suspect it will be lost on many of his fans (and indeed, early score reviews are already bemoaning the lack of accessibility in the middle section). But with a little patience, there’s something extremely fulfilling about this score. Headphones help, as so much of the score’s power comes through subtle instrumental effects. The bass flutes are an ingenious touch, particularly when Elfman has them creep up the scale and then abruptly fall off and fade away. These bass flutes – instruments that are almost never used in contemporary film scores – create the impression of voices vanishing into the mist, and they’re evocative and unsettling on a primal level. I also love the way the cellos in “The Killing of Mr. Hoffman” reverberate deep below the bass clef, seemingly inspired by Henry Mancini’s clinically elegant suspense scores in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s (I’m thinking of Lifeforce in particular – if you only know Mancini for his easy-listening jazz soundtracks, you are missing out). Elfman has created a score that has a very firm grasp on the past, but it doesn’t just evoke an earlier era for the sake of nostalgia – Elfman actually makes a case for this forgotten musical language, and demonstrates how effective this music in creating uniquely unsettling sensations.
Unfortunately, the music is largely lost on Burton’s film, for its mixed so low that most of its subtleties are lost. Cues like “The Killing of Dr. Hoffman” still effectively support the on-screen narrative, but the music would be so much more powerful if it loud enough to assert itself. In general, the film uses Elfman’s grim score to give the film some semblance tonal consistency. It’s effective in that regard, but it’s a shame to see a brilliantly detailed cue like “Lava Lamp” buried under one of Barnabus’s fish-out-of-water gags.
This ultimately means that, for perhaps the first time, Burton’s film and Elfman’s score are best appreciated as separate entities (though to a certain extent, this also goes for Alice in Wonderland). The film is far from Burton’s best, but its unevenness is itself a welcome return to Burton’s looser style of filmmaking. The story that drives the film never quite hangs together, but Dark Shadows is nevertheless an entertaining diversion that gives Burton a chance to further develop his theme of misfits and their families. The score album, however, is genuinely something special, one that should appeal equally to Elfman fans and anybody with an appreciation for offbeat retro horror scores. Seek it out, find a good pair of headphones, and let yourself get lost in its trance.
Film: *** ½ out of *****
Score: **** ½ out of *****