Movie Review: Dark Shadows
Quick! Name a Tim Burton film starring Johnny Depp with stupid hair, bad makeup, and a silly accent. It’s certainly not a difficult request considering almost all Tim Burton films that include Johnny Depp include every one of those clichés. The Burton/Depp team up has become such a stagnant and silly combination in recent years that I earnestly wish that the two would take a long break away from each other. Sadly, Dark Shadows doesn’t help this issue any.
Dark Shadows, based on the 60s/70s soap opera of the same name, follows the exploits of Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), a man of high birth… and a vampire. Barnabas was cursed to become a vampire after rejecting the advances of one of the servants (who just so happens to be a witch) of his family estate. Buried in the ground as an abomination, Barnabas is awoken nearly two centuries later. Finding the remains of his family in shambles, Barnabas promises to restore the family to glory and stop the witch who cursed him.
The weird thing about Dark Shadows is that it never knows what kind of film it wants to be. Is it a comedy? The people editing the trailers certainly seem to think it is, even if the only remotely funny bits are those from the trailer. Is it horror? Vampires and ghosts might fall in the land of horror, but Burton rarely uses these spooky creatures to elicit any sort of tension. Is it a drama? Barnabas struggles with family issues and falls in love with the mysterious new governess of Collinwood Manor, but people and plot points are handled so ham fistedly that it all comes across as lazy and lame. Is it a soap opera parody? You’d think so, considering the terrible acting of Michelle Pfeiffer, but even soap operas have higher standards than this.
So, what is Dark Shadows? Dark Shadows is Tim Burton at his laziest. It’s a film that could have worked had Burton decided on a genre and stuck with it. As it stands now, Burton seems to have latched on to the idea that it’s a parody of some sort and that explains why it’s so dumb in spots.
The script by Seth Grahame-Smith never allows any characters aside from Barnabas a chance to shine. All side characters are completely and totally ignored. For instance, Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote) comes to Collinwood under mysterious circumstances. She’s the first character we meet in the film’s present day of 1972. She shares a likeness with Barnabas’s long dead lover. She sees ghosts in the Manor. Barnabas is madly in love with her. Oh, and she only has like ten minutes of screen time out of the entire 113 minute runtime of the film. How are we supposed to believe or care about this love story if Burton isn’t interested in even showing it happen?
And Victoria isn’t alone. Chloe Grace Moretz, Jackie Earle Haley, Jonny Lee Miller, and Gulliver McGrath as various members of the Collins family all get very little consideration within the script, despite there being mentions of significant storylines for each character (some taken directly from the original soap opera). The same thing goes for Helena Bonham Carter’s Dr. Hoffman, who is used for some silly jokes before being shuffled out of the story.
Bottom line, if it’s not played by Johnny Depp, Eva Green (who plays Angelique, Barnabas’ nemesis), or to a lesser extent, Michelle Pfeiffer, then Burton isn’t interested in showing it to us. Hell, at one point Alice Cooper performs at a party and gets to perform three songs, which take more time than most of the cast gets on screen. By the way, as much as I love Alice Cooper (first concert I ever went to was one of his), the dude does not look like he did in 1972 any longer, regardless of the makeup. Good try though, Burton, because that cameo was quite literally the highlight of the movie for me.
One thing that Burton has always been prudent with is set design aesthetics, and here he does not fail to disappoint. The Collinwood Manor has some wonderful design that goes through centuries on film. The town of Collinwood looks amazing as a fishing village set in Maine in the 1970s (though why Burton set the film in 1972, a year after the television series was cancelled, instead of in contemporary Maine is another whole issue). The design of the town, the clothing that everyone wears, the set design, it’s all terrific. Unfortunately the makeup isn’t as wonderful. Depp’s Barnabas looks like he’s covered in terrible makeup instead of being a vampire. No, Depp looks like a bad cosplayer rather than someone actually in a film. Similarly, the other castmembers look silly with their pale makeup and bright hair.
Dark Shadows was never a slam dunk. It couldn’t be. A big screen adaptation of an obscure soap opera from forty years ago was never going to be a huge deal. Even with present day pop culture’s fascination with vampires, Dark Shadows always had an insurmountable task to break into the public consciousness. I’m sad to say that Tim Burton doesn’t even begin to come close to that goal. Had Burton decided to take the film to the extreme in any genre it might have gone differently. Instead Dark Shadows stands as yet another latter day Burton failure: a hodge podge of genres with nothing fun to find.