For the last decade or so Tim Burton has seemed to give up on developing his own stories and instead focuses on gobbling up a pop culture relic that inspired him in his youth and giving it the Tim Burton design treatment. That line up includes Planet Of The Apes, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd, Alice In Wonderland and now Dark Shadows. Unfortunately, these are among the worst movies in his career because unlike when he took on Batman, Burton isn’t molding the material to fit in his own themes and ideas, he’s merely taking a script already in development and supervising the design elements to fit his house style (Sweeney Todd was the only good movie to come out of this run, entirely because it stuck so closely to the award-winning source).
Like all the movies on that unfortunate list, Dark Shadows feels like a waste of all the money and talent involved. Sure it looks pretty and features some enjoyably eccentric performances, but it isn’t a movie about anything, just a series of loosely connected sketches of ideas stitched together into something resembling a narrative. Hopefully Burton will show some sort of interest in telling a story or expressing ideas again soon, because even his famous design choices are starting to become boring without anything of worth to hang them on.
Dark Shadows comes from a 70s gothic soap opera remembered primarily for the campy humor associated with the cheap live broadcast and the fact that it offered dark entertainment in a time when TV was primarily selling homogenized happy fantasies. With this being a Tim Burton movie, Johnny Depp stars as a Barnabous, a wealthy landowner in Colonial Maine who had twin torrid love affairs. One was with a beautiful wisp Josette (Bella Heathcote) and the other was with a beautiful servant Angelique (Eva Green). He eventually chose Josette, which was a bit of a mistake because Angelique was a witch and hypnotized Josette into committing suicide before cursing Barnabous into eternal life as a vampire and buried him in a coffin for what was supposed to be an eternity. Then in the 1972 a construction crew stumbles on Barnabous’ coffin and he’s set free. He returns to his mansion to find his family in ruin. The once thriving home is now filled with a secretive matriarch (Michelle Pfeiffer), her useless grown son Roger (Johnny Lee Miller), his teenage rock obsessed sister Carolyn (Chloe Moretz), Roger’s son David (Gulliver McGrath, who is haunted by his mother’s ghost), and the fractured family’s full-time alcoholic psychiatrist Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter). Barnabous is determined to get the family back on track, but encounters some speed bumps when he notices the family’s new governess looks exactly like Josette and the evil business woman now running the town looks exactly like Angelique. Do you think that’s just a coincidence?
The main problem with Dark Shadows is that it seems like Burton couldn’t decide what type of film he wanted to make. At times it feels like gothic melodrama and at times it’s a goofy culture clash comedy with the ancient Barnabous unable to fit in properly with that wacky 1970s culture. Perhaps this odd combination of tones was supposed to be a more self-conscious version of the original series’ mix of earnest soap opera and indeliberate camp. More likely, the project started with not a serious and comedic version of the script that were awkwardly combined. There are a couple of laughs to be had, but they arrive intermittently at best. The culture clash comedy just isn’t funny, full stop. In terms of the soap opera, with only 2 hours to spin the story and superstar Depp required to be in every scene, no character gets much of a chance to develop. In both roles, Bella Heathcote is merely there to look pretty. Michelle Pfeiffer is suitably mysterious, but has absolutely no character beyond being the head of the family. Johny Lee Miller gets 3-4 scenes to be sleazy before disappearing for no apparent reason. Gulliver McGrath makes creepy kid faces in a couple scenes and does little else. Chloe Moretz’s character has a supernatural twist, but it arrives pointlessly in the final moments with no set up or pay off. Even Helena Bonham Carter who is easily the most talent actor in the cast is reduced to delivering tired booze and blowjob jokes before ultimately turning into a plot device. There’s really no point in having an ensemble cast if they are just window dressing. Even the side characters in Beetlejuice got at least one scene to justify their appearance in the movie. Burton just doesn’t seem to care about that anymore.
So, the only actors who get enough screen time to make an impact are Johnny Depp and Eva Green. Depp does his usual slightly befuddled, lady-slaying goofball thing. It’s a fun turn as it always is with Depp, however he’s become so famous that the shtick is overexposed and slowly becoming repetitive. At this point, the best thing that could happen for Depp’s career would be a string of bombs that would take him off of the Hollywood A-list and return him to appearing exclusively in small movies that give him a chance to experiment. The best thing in the movie is probably Eva Green’s witch, with the actress gleefully vamping, playing a bad girl, and cracking apart like a porcelain doll in the best effects work in the film. Here’s the thing though, even though Green is the best part of the movie all she is doing is playing a conventional villain. The only reason she registers more than any other person on screen is that she has enough scenes to develop a character and hasn’t been around long enough for viewers to instantly recognize her performance tips.
Given the massive budget and shooting schedule given to any Tim Burton/Johnny Depp joint, the movie does look gorgeous. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to ensure the project values are top tier and the guys have a decent enough sense of humor to get a couple of laughs. Unfortunately, the reason these guys got successful enough to be in a position to make a film on this scale is that they grabbed attention for each having a distinct style and voice that made them unique. Endless repetition, outside imitation, and laziness has dulled that sense of originality. What once made their work unique is now expected and with neither of those gents bothering to stretch, the bar is getting lower and lower. Dark Shadows might not be the worst thing that either Burton or Depp has done, but it is probably their most predictable and dull movie. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, those were two adjectives that could never be used to describe the longtime collaborators. Hopefully they’ll each dare to try something different soon or even their most devoted fans will start abandoning them. Given that Burton’s next project is literally a remake of his own movie Frankenweenie and Depp will next star in The Lone Ranger, that shift in focus clearly won’t be happening right away, be we can always dare to dream, right?