A Review of Dark Shadows

In my Alice in Wonderland review, I stated what I felt needed to be said about director Tim Burton (to summarize: baby’s first auteur).  What I would like to point out now is that, for whatever reason, Burton’s once great career has slowed down from an artistic standpoint. He has not made a great film since 2003 (Big Fish), and his last decent film was released in 2007 (Sweeney Todd). Of course, his most recent films have been the highest grossing of his career, but so what? As he ages, he’s stopped taking chances, and it’s becoming more difficult to see why he was ever considered an exciting director.

Dark Shadows does nothing to reverse Burton’s fortune. The man needs to find a good script to direct – or try to write one himself. He cannot survive on his (still amazing) visuals any more. What’s frustrating about this film is that this film STARTS out so strong. I would say that a great director would be able to make a great film out of the first ten minutes of this film. I know Burton is a great director. The problem is that the script abandons whatever inspiration it had in the first ten minutes, leaving audiences with a weak mess composed of vague Gothic clichés.

The film takes place in 1972 (as the trailers were so eager to point out) in the town of Collinsport, Maine. The Collins family, whom the town is named for, used to be the most prominent family in the area. Now, they are all a cloud of their former selves, with various traumas they are living with. There is matriarch  Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her brother Roger (Johnny Lee Miller), her budding hippie daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz ),  and nephew David (Gulliver McGrath). Also, psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) lives with the family, in order to help treat David as he recovers from the death of his mother. A new governess named Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote) arrives to further help the family.

You know what, I am going to stop right there for a minute, because this illustrates exactly what I mean about a promising set up. In the right hands, this material would be golden. The film could have even kept the Gothic look. Imagine a film about a reclusive family, living in a giant mansion, who still tries to live their lives like 18th century New England Calvinist royalty. Then, an outsider like Victoria could meet them and be taken in by their way of life. It could be a cross between The Royal Tenenbaums and The Addams Family. In fact, HAD the film been like that through its run time, I would be writing a wildly enthusiastic review. The set up was certainly there. Burton loves to explore quirky characters, and those first ten minutes give him some of the quirkiest of his career.

But then, Barnabas Collins, one of the families most famous members (Johnny Depp) is found in a coffin. He is a vampire, having been cursed by the witch Angelique (Eva Green) back in the 18th century. Angelique is still alive, and is responsible for driving the rest of the family to ruin by starting a rival fishing business. Barnabas promises to restore the family fortune, while avoiding the charms of Angelique and trying to court Victoria.

You can guess my biggest problem from the description – Johnny Depp. Burton has received a lot of criticism for continuously casting Depp in almost all of his films. I find it a non issue (was Kurosawa untalented for continuously casting Toshiro Mifune? Was Herzog untalented for casting Klaus Kinski repeatedly? De Niro and Scorsese just untalented hacks? Bergman and Sydow? Well, shut up then), and feel that Depp is usually perfectly cast in a Burton film.  Yet this was the first of their collaborations where I wanted to see someone else in the Depp role. For whatever reason, he completely phones in his performance of Barnabas. There is no intensity, no mystery, nothing to Barnabas beyond what we see. If the film is going to have someone Barnabas as its emotional center, then at the very least they could make him interesting.  What does it feel like to be cursed to the point where your entire identity is changed? How can Barnabas survive, seemingly intact, from a burial that lasts two centuries? What does he do to occupy the time? I wanted to know. Yet the only insight Barnabas offers us is the fact that seventies pop culture sure was funny. And that losing a lover sure is depressing.

Granted, Depp isn’t given much to work with. None of the actors are, but some of them (particularly the young Moretz) manage to create some interesting moments with the material. Depp never does. I know that a lot of this has to do with the hammy delivery of his lines. But then, it is a soap opera, and those moments of melodrama were among the few laughs that the film possesses. My problems run much deeper – the basics of the character are never defined. He is a one note presence who could have been a good supporting role, but is out-of-place as the center. Besides, David Lynch turned soap opera into an artistic statement about the human condition. I know it’s possible to take something like a daytime soap opera and make at least a worthwhile film.

That is where the problems of the film stem from – the lack of an energetic script and the lack of a single noteworthy performance. I suppose now is as good a time to mention the great visuals. The mansion looks great, and the effects on Angelique (particularly in the climatic fight sequence) are well done. But a film needs to do more than look pretty, and the Burton character elements are completely absent. Quirky characters have always been where Burton shines, so why is Dark Shadows so reluctant to really explore the quirkiness of the Collins clan after what should be the most interesting character shows up?

I have not seen a single frame of the original soap opera, so I cannot determine whether or not this is a good adaptation. But as a standalone film, Dark Shadows is a failure. The actors are a bore, the script contains one tired joke, and the film’s story structure resembles the Ventura freeway as designed by Salvador Dali. I wish there was some way that I could say that the film’s impressive visuals were enough, but not even that can save Burton anymore.

But then, chances are you already knew this.  The film has already left theaters, having barely grossed its budget back and was a critical failure. So, I suppose this review is nothing but an exercise in self-indulgence. And there are plenty such exercises that do not take two hours. Some of them even involve pictures of Eva Green.

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