Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
It’s been a long time since fans of eccentric filmmaker Tim Burton have been given a cinematic reason to celebrate, so let’s start with the good news: Dark Shadows, the director’s ninth collaboration with acting muse Johnny Depp, is his best movie since 1999’s underrated Sleepy Hollow. Go ahead, high-five your Edward Scissorhands figurine, but don’t bask in the joy for too long, because Dark Shadows is also, like all of Burton’s post-’99 efforts (including Planet of the Apes, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland), marred with a myriad of inexcusable problems. And, sadly, this isn’t a tepid recommendation, but, rather, yet another indictment peppered with glimmers of optimism. Burton loyalists will take what they can get at this point—it’s just a shame that mediocrity is his new creative plateau.
Dark Shadows is many things rolled into one messy package: It’s a fish-out-of-water comedy, a tragic romance, a dysfunctional family romp, and a tongue-in-cheek horror flick, all at once but never cohesively so. Based on the same-named Gothic soap opera that ran for over 1,200 episodes from 1966 through 1971, Burton’s typically odd, Hot-Topic-friendly exercise in campiness needs to settle upon one distinctive angle as it bounces around from various tones and influences, ultimately congealing into an intermittently entertaining, occasionally funny, but always frustrating hodge-podge.
At the center of it all is Barnabas Collins (Depp), a cursed vampire randomly awaken in 1972 from his 196-year-old coffin and determined to restore his family’s once-good name in the fishing town of Collinsport, Maine. Depp, clearly having a blast playing a character he’s repeatedly fawned about as one of his childhood favorites, is, to his credit, on his A-game here, selling every goofy joke and miraculously carving an intricate character out of screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith’s unhelpful script.
The rest of the cast, unfortunately, gets the proverbial shaft. A shame, too, since Dark Shadows boasts one of the stronger ensembles in Burton’s long career of such multi-talent groupings. Helena Bonham Carter, the director’s other go-to performer, is expectedly on-point as the Collins’ family live-in psychologist, charged with helping the youngest, David (Gulliver McGrath) get over the sudden death of his mother; not helping David’s case much are an effectively diva-ish Chloe Moretz as the family’s rebellious, ready-to-raise-provocative-hell teenager, a reinvigorated Michelle Pfeiffer as the matriarch, Jackie Earle Haley as the, surprise, creepy butler, and an under-used Johnny Lee Miller as David’s philandering dad.
It’s a non-Collins who gives Burton the film’s shiniest performance, though—Eva Green vamps it up fiercely as Angelique Bouchard, Barnabas’ scorned lover who put the undead hex on him back in the late 1700s, and, through witchcraft, hasn’t aged a day and now heads Collinsport’s wealthiest seafood exporter, a company that’s put the Collins’ own out of business.
Oh, and there’s also Australian newbie Bella Heathcote as the enigmatic Victoria Winters, the Collins’ new governess who looks exactly like Barnabas’ pre-burial sweetheart, the one responsible for pissing Angelique off in the first place. Yet, after an extended character introduction that establishes Victoria as the film’s most important figure outside of Depp’s Barnabas, Grahame-Smith’s script practically deletes her altogether, giving way to Depp’s domination. Which is one of the many faults plaguing Dark Shadows: For a film whose basic story hinges upon a love triangle between Depp, Green, and Heathcote, it’s not at all concerned with Heathcote’s character. Nor is Burton’s misfire bothered by the possibilities of further exploring the strangely engrossing Addams Family Vibe vibe that’s so nicely captured—via a couple of vibrant dinner table sequences—before Barnabas rises from his grave.
By its overboard, but undeniably grand, finale, Burton goes for broke and concludes Dark Shadows with a raucous monster mash that’s directly up his visual effects alley—paintings laugh maniacally, a carpet morphs into a large snake, walls bleed, a werewolf appears for no logical reason, and one character’s ghoulish skin cracks upon impact like that of a porcelain doll. It’s a moment of extreme bombast that encapsulates Dark Shadows as a whole: a clusterfuck that looks attractive, is exciting enough to watch, but conclusively amounts to a misguided disappointment in need of a narrative focus. You can only revisit the director's brand of morbid quirkiness so many times before even his craziest ideas start to feel pedestrian. If that Eddie Scissorhands doll is still nearby, stick only its middle blade upward in response to Burton’s inability to get back on track.
Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)