THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Dark Shadows is a great big mess. Since 1999, director Tim Burton has only made one film (Corpse Bride) that wasn't based on an already-existing property, be it a book, a movie or, now, a TV show. Consequently, his work has felt increasingly depersonalized. I'd even go so far as to say that, with his freaky visuals and kooky camera angles, Burton's stuff sometimes feels as though it's on autopilot. I've been a fan of the director's work from the beginning, which is why his recent output has been slightly disheartening. Dark Shadows is the first Burton flick I've outright hated, but I still wish he'd find material he really connects with again, because this film is completely undeserving of his - or anyone's - talents.
Based on the old soap opera, the movie stars Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins, a man who was cursed by spurned lover Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), turned into a vampire, and shoved into a coffin for nearly two centuries. He escapes in 1972 and returns to Collinsport, the town his family built. Several of his descendants are living in the family mansion, which is now decrepit. They are: Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer); her brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller); her moody teen daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz); and Roger's 10 year-old son David (Gully McGrath). Also in the home is Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), the psychiatrist not-so-successfully treating David, who believes he sees his late mother's ghost. David also has a new nanny, Victoria (Bella Heathcote), who has come to Collinsport for reasons she cannot fully articulate.
Angelique is still kicking around too. When she finds out Barnabas has risen from the grave, she tracks him down and tries to win his love again. He rejects her once more, so she vows revenge against the whole Collins family. Barnabas intends to protect them. Deep, dark family secrets are exposed along the way.
The whole tone of Dark Shadows is inconsistent. At times, it feels very much like a soap opera; other times, it feels like a parody of a soap opera. Either approach could have worked, but they don't mix and, honestly, neither approach is particularly well done here. In the sections that play more as comedy, the jokes are very predictable (Barnabas doesn't understand how television works! He doesn't know what McDonald's is!). At one point, the picture stops cold to allow Alice Cooper to make a cameo and sing three songs. The mere appearance of a Gothic guest star in a Gothic movie is apparently supposed to be witty, although one does tend to wonder why Mr. Cooper looks 64 in 1972 when, in fact, he'd have been 24. His whole cameo slows down the pace, while also indicating that the screenplay (by Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter author Seth Grahame-Smith) is utterly lacking in inspiration.
The scenes that feel like soap opera fare even worse. The supporting characters are completely undeveloped. They have bizarre physical appearances and/or mannerisms - as is always the case in Burton films - without having any actual personalities. It often feels as though the actors are working on different movies. They don't get opportunities to interact with one another or generate any sort of chemistry. And because they get such little screen time, certain subplots go nowhere. For example, there's a scene near the end that is supposed to be a big payoff for David. Since his plot thread has been largely ignored up to this point, the scene feels like it's coming out of left field. A meaningful connection between Barnabas and Victoria is established early on, but left mostly unexplored. It, too, fails to create the impact it should. Without a strong central story, I found it impossible to become invested in anything that was happening on-screen. The movie just bops hyperactively from one half-baked, uninteresting thing to the next, never creating any reason to care.
There are few pleasures to be found. The physical design of the film is effective. Obviously, more care went into the lush, Gothic visuals than went into the script. Of the stars, only two really register. Eva Green hits the right over-the-top note as Angelique, whose evil is matched only by her delight in being evil. Chloe Grace Moretz is also amusing as the sullen teenager who views her odd family with cynical detachment. They do the best they can with the weak material they've been given. Depp's performance is typically weird, but atypically one-note. Barnabas Collins is a repetitive bore. Perhaps Depp has played one too many eccentrics and no longer has any new tricks up his sleeve.
In fairness, I never saw the TV program on which Dark Shadows is based. Who knows? Maybe it's a completely faithful recreation that will satisfy the generation that ran home from school to catch it every afternoon. For my money, though, it's a major disappointment. Burton and Depp have worked together seven times before. Dark Shadows feels like they did nothing more than follow a formula: dress Depp up in a bizarre costume, surround him with equally-unusual supporting characters, place him in imaginatively-designed sets, and let the magic happen. Only problem is, the magic didn't show up this time.
( 1/2 out of four)
Dark Shadows is rated PG-13 for comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.
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