Directed by Tim Burton
Screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith
Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Jackie Earle Haley, Jonny Lee Miller, Chloë Grace Moretz, Bella Heathcote, Gulliver McGrath
How long is Dark Shadows? 113 minutes.
What is Dark Shadows rated? PG-13 for comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking.
Self-indulgent wackiness and a severely underused cast do not a memorable or good movie make.
On the one hand, goth auteur Tim Burton has always dealt in camp. On the other, it wasn’t always quite so self-indulgent. The man who brought us Edward Scissorhands, the first two Batman movies, and Beetlejuice seems to be getting a bit smug in his old age. Fans flock to theaters at the mention of his vaunted name – and combined with Johnny Depp, Burton’s an indisputable box office success. This weekend’s Dark Shadows is the actor’s eighth collaboration with Burton, and the two are old hat together now. Depp, who manages to stay mostly out of the Hollywood scene by inhabiting his own private island and remaining in a close-knit, long-term relationship with a little known French actress, isn’t much more than a caricature of himself these days. As Ichabod Crane, as Willy Wonka, Ed Wood, the Mad Hatter, or Sweeney Todd, Depp’s persona is quirky and stiff, wide-eyed and full of wariness/mischief/barely hidden insanity. The characters into whose skins he slips under Burton’s direction are all beginning to feel suspiciously familiar – and Barnabas Collins isn’t an exception.
Collins, an 18th century playboy whose family “brought the riches of England to the wilds of Maine” and founded a lovely little coastal town called (what else?) Collinsport, has a brief, torrid affair with housemaid Angelique (Eva Green). When he then falls in love with soft-spoken, doe-eyed ingénue Josette (Bella Heathcote, the latest in Burton’s version of Hitchcock blondes), Angelique reveals herself to be a powerful witch and curses Collins’s family for all eternity. Angelique commands Josette to fling herself off a cliff, and when Barnabas follows suit he’s surprised to awaken again as a vampire. Vengeful Angelique traps him in a chained coffin for two hundred years.
In 1972, that era of disco, spangles, miniskirts, and bellbottoms, Barnabas reawakens to discover the remainder of the Collins family living in an empty shell of ye olde manor, Collinwood. Matron Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer, who just doesn’t age) presides over a household that includes her daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), “crazy” nephew David (Gulliver McGrath) who speaks to his dead mother, David’s conman father Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), and a psychiatrist by the name of Julia Hoffman (none other than Burton’s longtime partner and oft professional muse Helena Bonham Carter). Drunken lout Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley) is the ostensible caretaker, though all he seems to do is stagger around in a stupor, talk to pumpkins, and mutter about how the house is a bitch to dust. Mysterious beauty Victoria (Heathcote), who bears an eerie resemblance to Josette, becomes David’s governess. Angelique, as it turns out, has turned Collinsport into her own personal business venture. Her Angel Bay seafood presides over the ports and the Collins family has been left in ruins.
Angelique isn’t about to let Barnabas restore his family’s honor and attacks him once more, resulting in an awkwardly destructive sex scene in which the two of them literally bounce off the walls and smash through furniture (anyone who’s watched “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” knows this scene can be done so much better). When Barnabas spurns her once more in favor of gentle Josette, she goes off the rails.
With a cast like this, you wonder, how could you go wrong? Well, I thought the same thing. Moretz is not-so-secretly one of my favorite up-and-comers (she was a force to be reckoned with in Kick-Ass and brilliant in Let Me In and 500 Days of Summer). Pfeiffer and Burton made magnificent things happen with Batman Returns; Catwoman is Pfeiffer’s iconic role, and Anne Hathaway has a lot to live up to in this summer’s Dark Knight Rises. Oscar nominee (for Little Children) Earle Haley knocked the world for a loop as Watchmen’s Rorschach. Eva Green is one of the better Bond girls in the last decade and was momentously sexy and mischievous in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers. Put ‘em all together and what do you have?
A jumble of flat acting, convoluted plot, self-indulgent wackiness, and a lack of chemistry so absurd it almost aches. Pfeiffer phones it in while Bonham Carter chews the scenery. Moretz is severely underused as an unhappy fifteen-year-old werewolf with a perpetual scowl. Earl Haley is likewise underutilized, playacting a role into which it’d be hard for anyone to sink his teeth. Miller hardly has any lines at all and Heathcote fills the Burton blond role perfectly, with her enormous baby blues and perpetually startled face.
Burton’s signature “look” is an uncredited character in his films. The halo effect surrounding his actors, the flat grays and overly saturated colors, are as much a part of his movies as the people and plots. Alice in Wonderland wasn’t a very good movie, but it sure was pretty – as are most of his endeavors. I have a hard time saying the same about Dark Shadows. It’s set on the gorgeous coast of Maine with a backdrop of pounding surf – but the house, the characters, and the story uncomfortably straddle the line between reality and fantasy, and Burton’s movies look plainly too fantastic these days to work here. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, whose work with Jean-Pierre Jeunet on Amelie and A Very Long Engagement established his veritable talent, does good work here but seems constrained by Burton’s style.
Like Pfeiffer and Depp, composer Danny Elfman pretty much phones it in. Whither the gorgeous, lilting melodies of “Ice Dance” and “Jack’s Lament,” Mr. Elfman? The score of Dark Shadows isn’t the least bit memorable. Little about the movie is, in fact, memorable. Granted, I haven’t seen the original soap opera, which aired for five seasons from 1966-1971, then came back in 1991. Adapting series into movies is a difficult task, and the jarring plot twists and bizarre pacing could be a result of trying to force too much into a two-hour feature film.
The first two thirds of the movie drag, with montage after montage of restoring the Collins family cannery and Depp sleeping in funny vampire places. The final quarter is entertaining – explosions and a mob with the 20th century equivalent of pitchforks, a battle between a vampire and a witch, and the sudden, completely unnecessary werewolf appearance are almost enough to slap you awake again. Even a cameo from the great Christopher Lee and one from Alice Cooper (who likewise doesn’t seem to age) aren’t enough to save the mess that is Dark Shadows.
Burton, Bonham Carter, and Depp have worked together so often in the last few years that making movies must just be like a family reunion for them. “Let’s get together and make a movie film!” one imagines one of the trio saying at some (undoubtedly bizarre) dinner party, waving a glass of merlot. “Well, okay then, which old material shall we butcher—I mean adapt—this time?” No one particularly expected great things from this movie, but most of us at least expected a few laughs and a bit of fun. There are a few cute lines, and the final battle sequence is kind of cool. Other than that, it’s really not worth your time. One hopes maybe Burton, Depp, and Bonham Carter will step back and take a good, hard look at their work on this one – and maybe the next will be less of a disappointment.