Directed by Tim Burton
Written by Seth Grahame-Smith; Story by John August and Seth Grahame-Smith; Based on the series created by Dan Curtis
Starring Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfieffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Johnny Lee Miller, Eva Green, Chloe Grace Moretz, Bella Heathcoate
Rated PG-13 for comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking
Running Time of 113 Minutes
Few working filmmakers have as distinct an authorial voice as Tim Burton. In a career that has now spanned well over 25 years, audiences have become familiar with Burton’s visual style, his obsessions, and his fetish for the Gothic and the macabre. Burton has created some of the most chilling and darkly beautiful imagery in film, but he has also become an easy target of derision due to his lack of wavering from what he likes and his more recent penchant of favoring his visual sensibilities over storytelling. In recent years he has tackled a series of cinematic adaptations of other people’s work, and for all of the ones that hit (Big Fish, Sweeney Todd, Sleepy Hollow) just as many miss in an awful way (Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Planet of the Apes). Say what you will about Mr. Burton, but I have always found him nothing less than fascinating. Even in his lesser works there is always a sense of imagination or creativity at work, just sometimes not for the right reasons. Burton’s newest, an adaptation of the cult-classic 1960s soap opera Dark Shadows, and his 8th cinematic team-up with leading man Johnny Depp, continues his tradition of creating wild, dark, and bizarre worlds with “kooky” characters for Mr. Depp to play. Unfortunately, this feels like more of the same from the Depp/Burton team, and despite some laughs, it is a slight and messy affair.
I have not seen a single episode of the original Dark Shadows soap opera, but as I tend to enjoy stories about vampires, it was always on my radar. On paper, it seemed like the perfect fit for both Burton and Johnny Depp, and it is well known that they are both boyhood fans of the show. In many ways, though, it does not feel as if the story successfully transfers to the cinematic medium. The biggest issue afoot is the bizarre tonal inconsistencies. On the surface, Dark Shadows is as visually attractive as you would expect a Burton film to be. The production design, costuming, and photography from the great Bruno Delbonell are all appropriately Gothic and playful. And, of course, Danny Elfman has provided a predictably spooky if mostly unmemorable score. Scripted by Seth Grahame-Smith, the film is set in 1972 (a year after the original series left the air), and this lends itself to a wide variety of “fish-out-of-water” humor. The soundtrack is riddled with classic 70s tunes, design, and fashion (hippies abound!), and one can certainly see how placing an elegant vampire from the 1700s in this setting would be amusing. In many ways, it is. Depp, as the vampire Barnabas Collins, does quite enjoyable work; a riff on Bela Lugosi (via Martin Landau’s performance in the wonderful Ed Wood, still the best Burton/Depp pairing) with a little more aristocracy and a little more wackiness. Depp is the centerpiece of a campy, silly film and whatever works is thanks to him. Unfortunately, as the 3rd act begins to shift into an altogether more serious film, not even Depp can hold it together.
The film attempts to make the argument that all you need in life is a loving family, no matter who or what you are. While I agree with this notion, it is not carried out successfully here. The various actors playing the Collins family, especially Michelle Pfieffer and Chloe Grace Moretz, are all styled well and perform decently, but they are given short shrift and thusly become one-dimensional. Burton is clearly more interested in throwing Barnabas into as many silly situations as possible, and the plot and other characters swirl together in a muddled mess. There are elements of a war between rival fishing companies, a half-baked romance (newcomer Bella Heathcote is lovely; she reminds of Addams Family era Christina Ricci), and a vengeful witch (a miscast Eva Green) that all come to a head in the final reel, but none of it makes a lick of sense and none of it is convincing. In an attempt to layer the film and make it more complex or emotional than it probably should be, Burton completely shifts gear and almost starts making another film altogether. The special effects are ramped up, the score and photography get darker, and the violence becomes more extreme; this is not the same amusing, campy comedy we were watching earlier. It is a much worse, much uglier, and much more predictable film from Burton, and it severely hinders the overall film. Not even performances from Alice Cooper as himself can save it.