Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Johnny Depp, Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer, Bella Heathcote, Helena Bonham Carter, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jonny Lee Miller, Jackie Earle Haley
Plot: Barnabus Collins (Depp), an 18th Century gentleman turned vampire awakes from a two-century imprisonment, determined to restore his family name.
With Dark Shadows, once a popular 60s TV show, Tim Burton had seemingly found something rather interesting and intriguing. After a torrent of exposition (Johnny Depp’s English gentleman scorns a servant girl, who happens to be a witch, is turned into a vampire and locked in a coffin for two centuries), we settle into something quite new and quite exciting. The action doesn’t take long to fast forward from 1760 to 1971, where the family manor is still standing, albeit crumbling into decay. What Burton brings out of the material is a peculiar blend of Victorian Gothic genre with a slice of 60s America. As the characters potter around an empty, grand manor, T. Rex blasts through the halls. It is like Wuthering Heights, directed by Tarantino. Burton plays with this sensationalist film style too, bringing out some larger-than-life performances from his A-List cast. Burton has always had a habit of bringing major names to the table, making sure that all of the players are acutely aware of how to best adapt to his Gothic style of story-telling. Yes, there are a lot of familiar faces from Burton’s filmography: Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp, but they are so precisely used that it doesn’t become an issue. Pfeiffer is the ideal fit for the tough matriarch of the household, casually wrapping her talents around a meaty script, although the performance is so good, it is anything but lazy. Chloe Grace Moretz is also worth praising with the moody teenager character, but the actress lifts the material into something quite special, filling every line of dialogue and movement on screen with an energetic kick. Her ascent into one of the hottest young stars continues in earnest. And then there is Eva Green, who is nothing short of spectacular. If there is a role Green cannot do, no one has thought to write it yet. The character could have been a shallow, two-dimensional baddie for the movie, a scorned woman whose whole plot revolves around petty revenge for the boy who rejected her centuries ago, but Green fills the part with depth perhaps not first included in the script. She is a tough individual, but beneath her armour is a very anxious woman, desperate for love. But Eva Green doesn’t forget to pile the camp back on past the depth, so we still get a meaty antagonist for this movie to play off against.
For most of the audience though, it will be the humour, not the Burton style, that makes Dark Shadows so worth consuming. Whatever your opinion of the always-controversial Johnny Depp, his handle on comedy is, for the most part, strong. Diving into yet another eccentric lead role, Depp brings both Barnabus’ moral fibre, his resolve and his crippling character flaws, yet also his foolishness. After the heavy prologue where Depp is tossed into a coffin for two centuries, Dark Shadows could have easily been a dark drama about a soulless demon tracking down revenge. But as soon as Depp has arisen from the grave – again – Burton decides to play the whole affair for laughs. Locked away from the world for two centuries means that 60s America is a massive culture shock for the character and Dark Shadows, for pretty much its entire running time, become a movie about a Victorian vampire being totally baffled by modern day humanity. Cars are the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Red lava lamps look like blood, but taste nowhere near the same. And the big McDonalds logo over the hills can only mean utter dominance over the lands. Johnny Depp’s performance is one of balance: the actor is constantly working out how to keep the fear factor of his Gothic anti-hero present and how to make him someone the audience can laugh at. If it doesn’t work, the fault probably doesn’t lie with Depp, whose character flicks from awkwardly love-struck Brit to ruthless killer in the space of a single moment. For the most part, it is played well (allegedly Depp doesn’t blink once on-screen, post-death), Depp an experience performer, especially in Burton’s wacky world. Then there are some scenes which will have the whole cinema talking, namely the most outrageous sex scene in quite some time (a list in which Eva Green likely has more than one entry).
But Dark Shadows falls under the usual curse that plagues Tim Burton’s cinema. The talented director is a solid ideas guy, but he never can seem to tie his movies together. Dark Shadows is an explosion of great ideas, but missing a strong narrative to justify any of them. Yes, it’s hilarious, but for a long time, this movie is simply a bunch of gags stapled together and called a day. It also hurts that Johnny Depp takes up a predominant amount of screen-time, so the rest of the Collins family never break free from the original first impression that the actors give them. A subplot with Helena Bonham Carter is reduced to a Cliff-notes version. Jonny Lee Miller hardly features. Love interest Bella Heathcote barely has a personality. Burton seems so convinced that Johnny Depp can hold the film together on his own that he doesn’t seem to have too much time for anything else. This severely hurts the ending, where the story comes to an action-packed head, where the characters pull together for a final fight. It feels like they have developed personalities and character quirks out of nowhere, pulling interesting plot twists out of the hat on a whim. Also, the ending is so different to the comedy that comes before that the jarring tone doesn’t really land. It isn’t a bad ending. Eva Green reaching excellent levels of creepiness and some solid action sprinkled in by Burton, but it catches you off-guard. Where was this Gothic action for the rest of the movie? The film ends and you are still unsure what film Tim Burton actually wanted to make. It was critically panned and its messy conception makes it easy to see why, although there are definitely some great beats here. I would rather watch another Dark Shadows than some of Burton’s other projects. Sadly, as it stands, this is yet another Tim Burton project with high promises that failed to pull it together convincingly enough.
Final Verdict: Funny and anchored by an original tone, but the story is perhaps too unsure of itself to sell the whole product.