The new Dark Shadows is as old, tired and odd as its undead protagonist, proving that it might just be time to retire the arcane partnership of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. Eight collaborations with only two real clunkers (Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) is not a bad run, but the spark and the heart have dminished from the pairing. Although it’s entertaining enough in patches, Dark Shadows mostly bears testament to the fact these two artists are just going through the motions now.
Based off a goofy gothic soap opera from the late 60’s and early 70’s, this Shadows starts well enough. IfI didn’t already know where it was headed, I would have been more cheered by the dark-fantasy flourishes that occupy the visually delightful prologue. Burton, drawing a page from his best Depp picture, Sleepy Hollow, teases out N C Wyeth Americana and Nathaniel Hawthorne-esque devilry to tell the tragic back-story of Barnabas Collins (Depp), heir to an 18th century New England fishing empire.
Collins, whose parents established the quaint hamlet of Collinsport, ran afoul of vengeful, obsessed witch Angelique (Eva Green) when he spurned her ardor to pursue his own beloved, Josette (Bella Heathcoate). That feisty “whore of Beelzebub” takes vengeance by driving Josette to her doom and cursing Barnabas to live as an undead vampire, coaxing the townspeople to bury him deep in the Earth to suffer eternal torment. As told, it’s a striking fairy-tale vignette that does more to evoke the eerie creep factor of the Dan Curtis series than anything that comes after it.
When Depp’s Barnabas is finally released from his slumber by a shocked construction crew, he finds himself wandering back to Collinwood Manor only to discover the year is 1972 and his family legacy shrouded in dark secrets and a century of misfortune. This is also the point where the picture establishes its true identity as a good-natured ribbing of the source material’s risible gothic intensity. It retains more of the original’s high-strung ambience and incidental camp than the trailers would suggest, but Shadows feels too much like a real soap opera–goosed with some fish-out-of-water snark—to sit comfortably as a big summer popcorn flick.
Writer Seth Grahame-Smith has delivered a clunky script built around paper-thin characters and an even thinner plot that exists to set-up a series of stale jokes. Most of these deal with the misadventures of an aristocratic gentleman vampire wandering around in the age of lava lamps, shag carpeting and pet rocks. The rest of it hinges on the triangle of Barnabas, Angelique, and Victoria—the modern reincarnation of Josette—and how silly it is that a knockout like Green would still be salivating to knock boots with the pasty, K.D.Lang nosferatu that Collins has become. Surround them with the vestiges of the Collins family in the form of game actors like Michelle Pfeiffer, Chloe Moretz, Jonny Miller, and Burton muse Helena Bonham Carter as a live-in psychiatrist and you have a recipe for a traditional Burton freak show. Except we have come a long way since Edward Scissorhands’ cheeky suburban unease and nothing Burton does is so much freaky as mildly odd in a mainstream, family-friendly way.
I did enjoy Depp’s turn as Barnabas even if it’s absolutely nothing new or fresh for the actor. A far cry better than his wrong-headed MJ take on Wonka, Depp amps up the dramatic pauses and high-maintenance theatrics of the small-screen vampire to create a caricature that reminds of Jack Sparrow if he were written by Jane Austen. Pfeiffer and Moretz have good chemistry with him, but their scenes are constantly forced into the ‘clever comedy’ mold. Green is the only member of the cast that outshines the been-there-done-that blandness that infects everything else. She makes the witch a genuinely insane and cast-off individual, a sincere loner that spiritually reminds of Burton’s classic outcasts. She may be the villain but she’s got the proper charm and sexy menace that the material deserves.
Burton dresses up the film in the style to which he has become accustomed. Storybook colors and soft-pedaled German Expressionism make Dark Shadows look sumptuous and giddy, like an issue of Eerie magazine or Tales from the Crypt. If only there was more to it than style. Had Burton and Depp played the material a bit more straight, and found a story worthy of their time-traveling, blood-sucking entrepreneur, then this could have been something more than a fitfully amusing lark. For Burton, it’s time to acknowledge that the edge is off the goth, and that it’s either time to pursue darker shadows or come into the light and shed the emo accoutrements. Whether he likes it or not, its been decades since he was anything close to the overlooked loner.