At this point, there is no reason to watch a Tim Burton film, unless you have enjoyed practically every other Tim Burton film. The man simply doesn’t take risks anymore. If you see Burton’s name in the credits, you know what to expect. Take an existing property and spin it into a whimsical world come to life with strange humor and Johnny Depp in the lead. Meanwhile an impressive supporting cast hangs around as if endearing themselves to the public by saying they can be weird too.
It’s a formula that has made Burton into a brand name and millions of people seem perfectly happy with this arrangement. For the rest of us, it’s an ultimately empty gesture, because we can remember a time when Burton’s films had quirkiness, heart and a sense of risk. Films like EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, ED WOOD and THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (which Burton wrote and produced) weren’t just amusing Burton films. They were great films period, made by a capable and continually fascinating director. Every now and then, Burton tries to mix things up like with BIG FISH and SWEENY TODD. But while they were good attempts, they didn’t work for me and I’ve noticed Burton retreating back to the formula that he relied on for PLANET OF THE APES, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY and ALICE IN WONDERLAND.
Now, Burton gives us DARK SHADOWS. It’s based on Dan Curtis’ soap opera that ran from 1967-1971. It gained quite the cult following because while other shows of its type focused on cheating spouses, love affairs and diseases which somehow made the cast look even more attractive, DARK SHADOWS focused on vampires, werewolves and witches’ curses.
The DARK SHADOWS film follows the basic premise of the show’s most successful arc, but make no mistake. This is definitely Burton’s show, with all the wackiness and quirkiness that entertains some and makes me want to bash my head into a wall. Barnabas Collins (Depp, again) is a young and immature rich man whose family runs the Collinswood businesses and estates in circa 1770s Maine. Barnabas has been carousing around with one of the maids, Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green – CASINO ROYALE). When she asks Barnabas to pledge his heart to her, he tells her that he loves another. Should have kept it in your pants, Barnabas, because not only does this make you a cad, you’ve also gotten on the bad side of a very powerful witch. Angelique murders Barnabas’ true love and curses him to walk the earth as a vampire. This eventually gets Barnabas pursued by an angry mob who buries him alive for three hundred years.
Flash forward to 1972, a year after the show ended it’s run but the time period in which the film takes place. Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcoate – IN TIME, ACOLYTES) travels by train to the now crumbling Collinswood Estates in order to serve as governess to the Collins’ troubled child, David (Gulliver McGrath – but it hardly matters since he’s barely in it). Collinswood is falling apart. The matriarch of the estate, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) is doing everything she can to save what’s left of her family’s fortune and reputation. Her son Roger Collins (Johnny Lee Miller) is a materialistic man with no interest in raising David. Carolyn Stoddard (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a rebellious teen who just wants to get out from under her family’s thumb. Dr. Julia Hoffmann (Helena Bonham-Carter, again) serves as David’s psychiatrist, but seems to have a few problems of her own.
Construction workers accidentally release Barnabas Collins from his grave. Now, the very pale vampire must survive in the strange world of 1972. He puts the gamekeeper Willie (Jackie Earle Haley) into his thrall and makes his way back to Collinswood. Revealing himself to Elizabeth, Barnabas aims to bring the family name back to prominence. He does a good job of it too. But getting in his way is his old nemesis Angelique, still alive and monopolizing the fishing rights in town in her ageless bid to destroy the Collinses.
Barnabas meets Victoria and falls madly in love, since she is the very image of his old flame from the 1700s. Of course, this doesn’t stop him from nailing Angelique and Dr. Hoffman when he gets the chance, but I guess old habits die hard.
Believe it or not, DARK SHADOWS starts off quite well. In fact, I found myself really enjoying the initial set-up of the story. I even entertained the idea that this might finally break the streak of sameness that has plagued many recent Burton films. But curse my optimism, it all falls flat about 45 minutes in. Once everything gets lined up, the film just flounders and becomes an exercise in kitsch.
Like the series, the film introduces a number of strange, supernatural storylines. Unlike the series, it doesn’t make any earnest attempt to pursue or resolve them. The film brings up possible storylines and doesn’t do anything with them, leaving them at various points of their development. Sometimes, it resolves them quickly and haphazardly. Other times, it doesn’t bother to even do that much. In one particularly egregious moment, a major plot point is trotted out for two minutes during the film’s climax, simply because the filmmakers seemed to realize they hadn’t done anything else worthwhile with the character up to that point. Even Victoria Winters, who appeared to be the main character at the beginning of the film, is forgotten for almost the entire third act. The film drops her until the last few minutes of the film, when it literally runs to catch up with her.
Despite an amazing cast and a number of potentially interesting subplots, everything gets tossed onto the wood pile. It seems like the only people to get decent roles in Burton films are Depp and Carter. So, even though we have a talented cast with tremendous potential, the whole thing once again becomes THE JOHNNY DEPP SHOW. Since Depp is such a talented actor, this shouldn’t be a problem. But in Burton’s films, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that it is. Depp can do whatever quirky bit Burton finds amusing, as he’s done countless times before. The rest of the cast is merely there to react to his antics. Depp himself doesn’t seem to be adding anything anymore, slipping instead into a comfortable schtick.
Most frustrating is that a bold, new spin on the story instead becomes one tired, long fish out of water joke. Barnabas is astonished by garish 1970s fashions, technology and lava lamps. A scene involving hippies at a campfire and another where he mistakes Alice Cooper for a homely woman are particularly embarrassing to watch.
Performances all around are generally good, but are ultimately crushed under the overbearing tone and half-realized potential of the film. Kudos to Haley and the continually interesting Chloë Grace Moretz for at least attempting to stake a claim on some genuine characters amid all the chaos. Their performances and the promising opening are the only reason I didn’t give DARK SHADOWS a complete failing grade.
There doesn’t seem to be any point to this film. But then, there doesn’t seem to be a point to any of Burton’s films anymore. And make no mistake, the reason I hold Burton to task for the failure of DARK SHADOWS is that this is very obviously his show by design. The last live-action film from Burton I was enthusiastic about was SLEEPY HOLLOW, way back in 1999 (the animated CORPSE BRIDE was decent, but nothing spectacular).
It would be nice to see Burton work outside of his comfort zone again – to work with material unfamiliar to and untested by him. This is when he has made the most interesting choices in the past, even if they were not always successful. The real crime here isn’t that DARK SHADOWS is a failure. It’s that it doesn’t seem to have any real urge to succeed. ★½ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated PG-13 for comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and (gasp!) smoking
– Running Time: 1hr 53mins.