Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have managed to become one of the more prolific actor/director combinations in cinematic history that really haven’t accomplished grand things together. They have been commercially successful enough to warrant more work, ala Alice in Wonderland, and critically successful, Ed Wood stands out the most, but they haven’t had the sort of total success a pair like Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese have had. They’ve just been a bit off-kilter, for lack of a better term, but have been successful enough to warrant further collaborations. But here’s the thing: they really shouldn’t anymore if the end result is going to be films like Dark Shadows.
Based off the television series of the same name, the film focuses on Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp). He’s a vampire buried for 200 years after spurning a witch (Eva Green). Waking up in the 1970s, Collins discovers the family fortune he helped to build has been squandered as the family business has sunken into disrepair. He walks into a Collins family where Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), has arrived to teach a troubled young boy who sees dead people. The boy’s aunt, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), receives her warmly but his father, Roger Collins (Johnny Lee Miller), and his live-in doctor, Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), don’t. Into this Barnabas walks into as a sort of maelstrom to wake everyone out of their funk.
It’s up to him to rebuild his former life while also confronting the witch who put him in his current state, as well, and it has all the setup of a quirky comedy. The problem with the film is that it doesn’t really know what it wants to be. It’s a shame because Burton and Depp are major fans of the gothic soap opera and the film has been a passion project for quite some time.
It shows in how well the film is designed; this is a film that gets all the little things right in crafting essentially one and a half period pieces. Burton is known for having beautiful sets and scenery and this might be his best yet; everything is so well crafted that it’s almost intoxicating. He has crafted a wonderful world for a group of characters, most notably his vampire.
Usually Johnny Depp excels when it comes to strange and exotic characters. He is adept at the odd and ridiculous; it feels awkward when he’s playing a regular human being (like in The Tourist) because he’s so good at playing the oddball. Captain Jack Sparrow is the ultimate oddball and his best character, of course, and Barnabas has all the potential to be along those lines of a great iconic character. The problem is that the vampire comes off as more of a campy drag queen than someone so quirky that it becomes interesting to see. Barnabas isn’t an odd ball that’s endearing; he’s weirder for the sake of being weird as opposed to being weird while being interesting. It’s hard to criticize an actor like Depp, who’s in his wheelhouse when it comes to characters, but for someone with such a reverence for the character it’s odd that he’d be the film’s weak link.
The film’s other big problem is that it has a conflicting sense of tone. On the one hand it wants to be a quirky fish out of water tale with Barnabas dealing with life 200 years later. We get to see him explore the world as it changed radically and his flailing attempts at fitting in on occasion. This aspect of his tale is later forgotten as he works to restore the family business, etc, and then brought back up haphazardly. It’s odd to see from Burton as normally he’s much better at balancing out two different aspects of plot and tone. Dark Shadows feels as if a large part of the film was taken out in editing; a good hour of material or so connecting the film somehow feels missing in all of this.
If any film could’ve been significantly better than it turns out this year then Dark Shadows might be it.
Director: Tim Burton
Notable Cast: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Jackie Earle Haley, Jonny Lee Miller, Bella Heathcote, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christopher Lee, Alice Cooper
Writer(s): Seth Grahame-Smith, based on the TV series created by Dan Curtis