Johnny Depp and Tim Burton are like, um, Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew . . .
STARRING: Johnny Depp, Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jonny Lee Miller, Chloë Grace Moretz, Gulliver McGrath, Helena Bonham Carter, Jackie Earle Haley, Bella Heathcote
2012, 113 Minutes, Directed by: Tim Burton
With Dark Shadows, director Tim Burton doesn’t help his reputation as a purely visual filmmaker or negate the old criticism that he has problems telling a story . . .
The first might come as a surprise, because, even when Burton’s aesthetic becomes repetitive in a movie, it’s at least striking for a certain period of time. The look of Dark Shadows is part Gothic horror and part 1970s kitsch. We suspect the juxtaposition could work, but cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel seems to actively sabotage that look by drowning every detail in shimmering moonlight.
Some of those details still stick, like the bright and unnaturally blue eyes of the romantic love interest, the cavernous central hall of the central estate, and the white pancake makeup and seemingly impossible points of the bangs on our vampire hero’s coiffure. Odd as it may seem, this is a really a movie about tall ceilings, hairstyles, and the fact that the doppelgänger of the romantic love interest first shows up in the prologue looking like some golden princess out of a fairy tale.
The prologue, which documents the melodrama of the rise of an English family of entrepreneurs in America before they lose their lives and souls to a scorned witch, is crisp, clear, and concise. It’s here that the movie’s origins from a cult soap opera, which aired for about five years and produced over 1,200 episodes, are most apparent. The Collins family arrives from Liverpool in the mid-1700s to start a fishing business. So successful and popular is the family that the Maine town is named Collinsport; they spend 15 years building a massive mansion called Collinwood as the pièce de résistance.
In this place, Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) grows up and starts a loveless but sex-filled affair with Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), one of the manor’s servants. Barnabas dismisses her affections, and Angelique takes out her frustration by killing his parents with witchcraft. A similar fate befalls the woman with whom Barnabas falls in love, and after leaping off a cliff to join her, Barnabas discovers that Anelique has cursed him to become a vampire. She sets the townsfolk against him, and they bury him alive.
If anything, the prologue offers Burton a chance to display his strengths in a microcosm of form and material in harmony. It has the simple narrative elegance of a storybook.
In 1972—about 200 years later—construction workers unearth the coffin and free Barnabas, who kills them for their trouble. He returns to Collinwood and finds a new generation of Collinses occupying the home: matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her rebellious daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz) and lazy brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), his son David (Gulliver McGrath), who claims to see the ghost of his dead mother, his psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), who later attempts to cure Barnabas of his curse, and David’s new governess Victoria (Bella Heathcote), who has a striking resemblance to Barnabas’ long-dead fiancée. Angelique, meanwhile, has been busy for the past two centuries and is now the dominant name in the fishing industry in Collinsport.
Screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith drops the dramatic pretenses fairly quickly after Barnabas rises from the grave, giving way to the character’s status as a fish out of water in his new environment (an all-too-common motif for Burton). He is mystified by asphalt, imagines a car is a phantom come to take his soul, and believes the yellow “M” of a fast-food sign stands for something far more diabolical. Depp’s deadpan delivery helps to sell even the most obvious jokes.
The first act, with its focus on Barnabas and bringing the family into his fold, is the strongest. Grahame-Smith’s screenplay then drops any notion of cohesion, streamlining the family’s rise to prominence in montage and scattering the supporting characters and their subplots to near-irrelevancy. None of it, apparently, matters, except when it must. The budding romance between Barnabas and Victoria, who, like her ward, can see ghosts, barely registers until it becomes necessary during the climax. That climax, by the way, brings in other elements that Grahame-Smith apparently forgets to develop beyond a mere mention, leaving us with two supernatural dei ex machina that exist solely for an easy way out (A ghost is at least foreshadowed, but don’t think too hard about a random werewolf).
The cast doesn’t have much with which to work, but amidst the sloppy scenario there is a bright spot in the form of Green, who plays Angelique with a shark’s grin and elastic physicality (Burton and Grahame-Smith’s choice to portray her as a sort of porcelain doll, which cracks as her psyche breaks, is theoretically sound but doesn’t take into account Green’s rubbery performance). She brings a legitimately sinister presence to Dark Shadows, which makes it particularly unfortunate that she is forced into such awkward moments as a foreplay sequence that has her and Depp (who is also fine in spite of the material) climbing the walls and causing general destruction. It’s clunky, to say the least, and that’s the standard the movie has set.