When you let a child play with the same toys over and over again, you’re going to end up with some stale make-believe. Tim Burton has pulled his Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter dolls out of his play chest again and decided this time they’re engaged in a supernatural love story taking place in the 1970s.
Like most of Burton’s films, “Dark Shadows” hits on moments of gleeful peculiarity that remind us why we’ve been following his exploits for decades, but by and large it feels over- trodden and uninspired, and that latter adjective is not one to wield lightly against Burton to be sure.
That’s not to say Burton has lost a step by any means; he still does what he does better than anyone can, but his past successes have set the bar higher than he dares to even jump with “Dark Shadows.”
Depp plays Burton dress-up again as Barnabas Collins of the wealthy Collinses who immigrated from Liverpool and established a fishing empire in Maine. After spurning the love of the witch Angelique (Eva Green), he and his family were cursed. She turned him into a vampire, locking him in a coffin buried underground for nearly 200 years. Now, in the 1970s, he’s unearthed and learns that Collins family has fallen quite a bit, so he endeavors to restore them to glory.
The voice-over prologue hits us over the head with language that love is the strongest curse, begging us to care about Collins and his lost love (also cursed by Angelique). We’re also then asked to take interest in the dysfunctional Collins family led by the distrustful Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her thick-headed brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller) in addition to some other misfits: the rebellious daughter (Chloe Grace Moretz), troubled son (Gulliver McGrath) and his psychiatrist (Bonham Carter). Turns out that Barnabas’ exploits as a vampire out of time are far more interesting than whether or not they get their act together as a family.
The archaic expression of crude dialogue written for Barnabas and perfectly suited for Depp provides the chief source of entertainment in what’s otherwise a campy affair that hopes you will just embrace its outlandish choices and unjustified quirkiness. It will surely remind those who’ve seen most of Burton’s work that he is a man in love with classic B movies, not to mention Gothic appearances and odd turns of events.
Although Depp brings the humor, Eva Green is the standout as Angelique, who 200 years later still desires Barnabas and has destroyed his family in the process with her own fishing empire. Green is nearly unrecognizable in the role, and despite playing the villain in a campy affair, manages to avoid chewing the scenery to pieces, which can’t be over-appreciated in a script of this nature.
Seth Grahame-Smith and John August take liberties with the “Dark Shadows” TV show — so I’m told. The film uses the show’s concept as inspiration, but inspiration for what? It would seem that the point of adapting something with a fan base would be to honor it with some degree of loyalty. If you’re just using the name, characters and basic concept, why not create something entirely original? Perhaps the film’s one true crime is providing no good reason for being a “Dark Shadows” adaptation, and consequently seeming somewhat purposeless.
No doubt Burton had fun making this movie. It’s an excellent excuse to defy the rules of reality and borrow numerous characteristics from the films he has drawn his inspiration from over the years. It’s expertly set-decorated and Colleen Atwood’s costumes assure there’s plenty to look at. Much of the film’s big set pieces have a grandiose quality to the them, a certain fanfare, if you will, with due credit to Danny Elfman, whose scores are always so quintessential to Burton’s tone. Everywhere else, however, it’s hard to find intrigue or anything compelling in these characters and their dilemmas.
Burton appears to channel all his energy into the aesthetic of “Dark Shadows,” something that could be argued as the downfall of a lot of his other lesser works. It’s as though everything rides on the script in his films, an arena he has generally avoided in terms of the creative process. If he’s picked strong source material that’s adapted well, the aesthetic that he brings makes his film a winner. If that core is weak, then he goes down with it. “Dark Shadows” is one of those more hollow stories and it shows.
Directed by Tim Burton
Written by John August, Seth Grahame-Smith, Dan Curtis (TV show)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter