If you love Tim Burton films, especially recent Tim Burton films, take comfort knowing so too does Tim Burton. That can be the only real explanation for Dark Shadows, a film so magnificently up its own ass that it begins as a tonal mess and gleefully works backwards from then on. An adaptation of the popular late-sixties soap, Burton’s latest is another sad entry in an already dwindling and divisive filmography.
There’s simply too much that’s much too wrong with this mess. At a shave under two hours, Dark Shadows wanders in and out of its plot as Burton keeps finding new distractions like some senile old man playing with his goth action figures. Entire arcs are abandoned only to be picked back up at a later time, long after you’ve forgotten enough to care.
Dark Shadows as a comedy could have been an engaging if not enduring take. The story of a vampire, the cursed Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), returned to reclaim his family name after being buried alive for 200 years. In short order he encounters the Collins family of 1972: stiff matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her rebellious teen Carolyn (a hyper-sexualized Chloe Grace-Moretz), her asshole brother Roger (a barely-there Johnny Lee Miller) and his troubled 10-year-old son David (Gulliver McGrath). Barnabas returns just as the family is receiving newcomer Victoria (Bella Heathcoate), David’s teacher who also strongly resembles Barnabas’ long deceased love – this to the chagrin of the witch who cursed and imprisoned him (Eva Green).
The problem with Seth Grahme-Smith’s script, and the film it would eventually become, is tone. Burton seems unconcerned with delivering a film that adheres to tonal coherency. So where Barnabas’ adjustment to the world in 1972 is played to comedic effect one minute, he’s murdering innocent townspeople in cold blood the next. And it becomes a middling affair rather quickly, as the trademark Burton quirk feels more and more like hack shtick. There isn’t enough time in this 113 minute film for the audience to decide if this is a Barnabas they want to laugh at, root for, or chastise. There’s no greater complexity to Barnabas, the script never questions his motivations. You’re expected to be okay with his murderous tendencies and root for him to get the girl.
Also adding to Dark Shadows persistent off-ness is the time period: 1972. But it’s Tim Burton’s 1972, meaning everything “normal” has to look plastic and manufactured in contrast to the dark hyperreality with which Burton anchors his work. So not only is his newly resurrected main character displaced, so too is the audience. It feels directed by a man who’s only watched his own very particular brand of films these past 20 years. The magic of Beetlejuice is nowhere to be found, as Shadows maintains its rudimentary slog throughout.
Depp and the always-entertaining Jackie Earl Haley (as manor caretaker and wino, Willie) are the only performers able to land laughs. The movie coaxed a few chuckles out of me, Barnabas has a running gag where everything he doesn’t understand must be the work of Satan. It gets less funny as they keep going to it, but it works in a comedy where laughs are few and far between. Overall this is a typical Depp performance in a Burton film, as their collaborations become increasingly one note. Haley is great if misused, the slovenly drunk creepster seems too easy and too on-the-nose for him not to completely nail. He’s best working against type, but his Willie lands on the right side of funny. Johnny Lee Miller has a few brief scenes before he’s gone forever, as if his character seemingly realized what a shitty movie he was in, and simply calls a taxi and leaves. This makes him Dark Shadows‘ MVP of sorts, since the film was already weighed down by a few too many pointless characters (and a subplot about managing a fish business).
The female performers don’t fare so well. Michelle Pfeiffer is so dry she could have cracked and withered into dust in a few scenes. Eva Green’s villain is saddled under emotional baggage that’s never earned. Even Helena Bohnam Carter, as an alcoholic doctor, seems unsure of how to deliever her lines. Bella Heathcoate is barely in the film, and we’re given no reason to care whether her or Depp end up together. I mention Burton getting distracted a lot in this film – the love story is where he goes completely off the rails and abandons both conventional wisdom and Heathcote entirely (remind yourself she’s in the film at the 45 minute mark, because you will forget).
The most egregious misfortune is bestowed upon Chloe Grace Moretz, who Burton saw fit to oversexualize in the creepiest ways possible. Dancing and pouting, Burton frames her female adolescence and burgeoning sexuality in the creepiest of creepy-old-man manners. There’s a greater metaphor that’s spelled out for you at the end, and it’s delivered in the clunkiest way possible – the single worst line of dialogue I’ve endured all year. A fitting end to one of the most stunningly terrible third acts I’ve ever witnessed in a theatrical release.
From Danny Elfman’s deliciously creepy score to the slick 70s soundtrack, music is the best part about Dark Shadows. You get the sense that Elfman was the only collaborator having real fun with the premise, and he’s riffing on some very familiar themes for horror fans. It’s buried under a lot of clutter and exposition, but listen closely and you’re in for a treat.
Once the town gets wise to Barnabas’ vampiric tendencies, a rioutous crowd gathers around the Collins mansion to tear the family apart. It was around this time that I wondered if Burton was homaging a similar scene out of Edward Scissorhands, or if he had forgotten that scene itself was an homage to monster movies of old, and was simply homaging homages. There is something so self-masturbatory about Dark Shadows – unfocused and unmotivated aside from the familiar goth makeup and kitsch. It’s a limp fart of a film, devoid of context as it mercifully slips into the wind.
Upon seeing Dark Shadows, you’ll no doubt have a greater understanding of what entertains Tim Burton. Unfortunately, it’s staggeringly clear Mr. Burton can no longer say the same of his audience.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars