Dark Shadows brings together the familiar union of Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and my increasing concern about my waning interest in the partnership. I believe that the actor and director are destined to collaborate just as Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson or Scorsese and DiCaprio will continue to work together, however this latest film is a prime example of the tenet that with each of these partnerships less, sometimes, is more.
This updating of ABC’s 1960s gothic soap opera has a simple premise: Heir to a fishing fortune and newly cursed vampire Barnabas Collins is dug up two hundred years after being buried alive by a witch, he then finds his family and home in a state of severe disrepair and sets about restore the name and fortune of the Collins. The witch (played with almost illegal glee by Eva Green) has also made it through the twenty or so decades and now runs the small town named after the Collins family. Melodrama! Spooky! Fish! Etc!
Burton has his muse by his side once again, and the anachronistic presence of Johnny Depp as the vampire Barnabus Collins is a lot of fun, Seth Grahame-Smith’s script making the most of the outmoded speech of his character, and it is impossible to see anyone else play the role as well as Depp does. However it feels as if nothing is meeting Burton halfway, there’s little to challenge the director whose vision has proved itself, with Alice in Wonderland, capable of making a bucketload of cash, so why would anyone question his choices?
The billion dollar bonanza of Alice clearly resulted in a book full of blank cheque being passed to the director and I’m very happy to see this turn of events as his 3D re-working of Frankenweenie is one of my most anticipated of this year’s films and yet both this, and Dark Shadows, are old ground we’re going over and over, and we’re starting to get horribly stuck. This is the root of all evil in this film. I’m a huge Burton fan, but I’m no apologist. Dark Shadows is a beautiful missed opportunity, a flighty fairy tale without heart or the benefits of a moral compass; it is the best and worst of Burton’s career to date, wrapped up in luxuriant vestments and thrown shamelessly over the top.
It’s easy to see the televisual origins of the film, both in the soap opera echoes found in the movement, placing and melodrama of the many confrontations as well as the glut of characters whose motives and agendas are rich with potential for a long drawn out affair. Where the film falls apart is in the cavalier attitude it has to its characters and, by extension, the audience; storylines such as the relationship between the young boy David, Barnabus and his father peter out like a candle extinguished by a falling blob of ice cream while the main narrative drive of a competing fishery business is an ill-fitting model on which to hang such delicately made clothes.
Chloe Moretz is, for a long while, the only character given any sense of fun and she is always interesting to see on screen, Michelle Pfieffer spits out plot points like an expositional roman candle and her seething histrionics are part of the fun early on. Johnny Lee Miller and Helena Bonham Carter appear on screen at some points of the film and do not appear at other points of the film – that’s a fair estimation of their contribution, and Bella Heathcote is genuinely charming as the love stricken nanny Victoria before being cast aside once the Johnny Depp Show begins.
The film’s fate has nothing to do with this being the latest Tim Burton/Johnny Depp gothic-a-go-go, as such it’s rather a fun day trip through Burtonia and Depp is a wonderful guide. He is given some hilarious lines to which his keen delivery acts as a lightning rod in the surrounding turgid darkness, however further problems lie in the ramshackle pacing and an unforgivable misuse of a supporting cast who are given no chance to make good on the promise shown as the film gains pace at the outset. Characters who are central to the film bob up and down like Hallowe’en apples and instead of creating a layered narrative we have a fragmented one, thus there’s little to grab onto. Then Alice Cooper turns up. It’s a mess, and it’s a damn shame too.
Burton has made some fascinating work and Dark Shadows has moments of pure magic from the director. The ghostly apparitions and the snappy, macabre wit are present and correct, the production design from Burton’s old friend Rick Heinrichs is genuinely enchanting and there are some very interesting visual effects from time to time but there is no spark, no discovery, no illumination. If this is any indication then Burton seems intent on staying close to his own dark shadows just at the moment when he needs to move back into the light.