For a director and an actor to work together on several pictures is not uncommon. Woody Allen/Diane Keaton, Martin Scorsese/Robert DeNiro, Coen Brothers/Frances McDormand, and John Ford/John Wayne have all done it before. But the relationship between Tim Burton and Johnny Depp has always felt unique. Not because the stories are always original (in recent years, they’ve mostly been adaptations), but because of the artistry. In Burton’s cartoon-surrealistic worlds, Depp is a constant, willing, and able player. Razor-wielding barber? Sure. Boy with razor hands? Why the hell not? Depp dons powdery makeup and ungainly wigs with aplomb, creating memorable (if not all together successful) characters. And while Burton and Depp’s collaborative work—including seven live-actions and one animated feature—has achieved near perfection (Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood), a few have simply been beautiful bores (Alice in Wonderland). Unfortunately, Dark Shadows is something new: a beautiful mess.
Based on the ‘60s soap opera of the same name, Dark Shadows tells the story of Barnabas Collins (Depp). In the late 1700s, Barnabas—son of a wealthy family—spurns the affection of Angelique (Eva Green), a witch. Furious, Angelique turns Barnabas into a vampire and entombs him in a coffin. When his coffin is uncovered 200 years later in 1972, the vampire Barnabas returns to his home, now inhabited by Collins descendents: Elizabeth (Michelle Pfieffer, who last worked with Burton in Batman Returns), her daughter Carolyn (Chloe Moretz), Elizabeth’s brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), his son David (Gulliver McGrath), and David’s psychiatrist (another Burton collaborator, Helena Bonham Carter). Barnabas’ new focus: to restore his family’s name and destroy the still-living Angelique.
The first 30 minutes of the film is exquisite filmmaking. The tragic opening, recounting the death of Barnabas’ parents and Barnabas turning into a vampire, lacks any eye winking or camp and is captured perfectly by Bruno Delbonnel’s mirthless, blue-toned cinematography. When the film abruptly jumps two centuries, underscored by the Moody Blues, its desaturated, naturalistic look perfectly captures the visual essence of ‘70s films. Upon Barnabas’ return to his home, Seth Grahame-Smith’s script begins to sparkle with wit (especially in the too few moments between Depp and Pfieffer) and the movie shows real promise.
But as the film continues, it becomes a muddled mess. Instead of focusing on the dynamics of the quirky family (played by a brilliant cast, by the way) we get more and more screen time devoted to Angelique. Instead of focusing on Victoria (Bella Heathcote), the ethereal, new governess at the house, we get a lengthy, gravity-defying, furniture-destroying sex scene between Barnabas and Angelique. While Depp’s Barnabas remains fun to watch (especially in his fish-out-of-water scenes), Green’s Angelique is awkward and cartoonish. With a croaky, unsuccessful, American accent, Green doesn’t quite fit the Burton universe. (Just like the also blonde-haired, dark-eyebrowed Anne Hathaway in Alice in Wonderland.) So much time is spent on this one storyline, that many plot points and discoveries are crammed into the final minutes of the film. Additionally, the film struggles to find the right tone. At moments, it is schticky and silly, at others, deadly serious—little is done to somehow connect them.
Without a doubt, Dark Shadows is a gorgeous film, with pitch-perfect cinematography, breathtaking sets, and effecting special effects. But these are a given for a Tim Burton film. What it lacks is character development, original ideas—many scenes feel less homage than outright stealing: Barnabas confronting a paved road for the first time (see: Hocus Pocus)—and a driving plot.
Obviously, Burton and Depp had fun making this movie. Let’s hope that in their next one, we can too.
My Grade: C-