by Scott Mendelson
Dark Shadows is a movie with pretty much nothing to say. It uses its culture-clash and fish-out-of-water narrative not for any kind of social meaning or parable, but purely for cheap offhand laughs. It is filled with wonderful actors who all look spectacular but have little or nothing to do. The film tries to play around with mixing supernatural horror, cheap comedy, and genuine soap opera theatrics, but nothing really meshes as it should. It looks gorgeous as most Burton films do, the actors do what they can with very little, and the 70s soundtrack is filled with a mix of well-known classics and lesser-known hits. Whether it is better or worse than Planet of the Apes or Alice In Wonderland is a moot point, it's simply yet another very bad Tim Burton film. In short, Tim Burton's Dark Shadows can best be described in the same manner in which Alfred Hitchcock derogatorily referred to Ingrid Bergman: So beautiful... so stupid.
The plot involves Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), a wealthy heir to a successful local fishing business, who was cursed after screwing then rejecting the housekeeper Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) who was secretly a witch. Turned into a vampire and locked in a coffin for 200 years, Barnabas is freed from his tomb and finds his way back to the now downtrodden Collins estate. Awaiting him are several family members all going through their own personal problems, and Barnabas immediately sets out to restore the family business. But it will not be so easy, as the woman who cursed him still lives and now dominates the local industry, every bit as in love with the gentleman from 1690 as she was when she angrily cursed his family. Fish-out-of-water comedy and light gothic supernatural horror ensues.
This is the part when I lose some of you, but I have absolutely zero knowledge of the original soap opera other than that it existed and television networks occasionally try to reboot it from time-to-time, that last attempt in 2004 caused WB to cancel Angel, so f** you Dark Shadows! Anyway, after a visually striking but narratively repetitious prologue where Johnny Depp explains via voice over the very onscreen events that are transpiring in front of us, the film shifts to 1972 for an opening credits sequence framed by a long bus trip and scored to Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin." The opening credits sequence is sadly the best scene in the film, as it creates a sense of mystery and dread that the film never even attempts to deliver on. Our entry character is Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), a young unassuming woman who has traveled to answer a newspaper ad for a governess for the family's troubled son David (Gulliver McGrath). Through her eyes we meet the rest of the clan, including David's useless father (Johnny Miller), the grouchy and sarcastic older daughter (an absolutely wasted Chloe Moretz, save for a few quick laughs), and the family matriarch (Michelle Pfeiffer). Once Barnabas returns, the focus of the picture switches from our audience surrogate to yet another audience surrogate, albeit one who is an occasionally murderous vampire.
If I told you that a new dark comedy was coming out starring Johnny Depp, Eva Green, Michelle Pheiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Chloe Moretz, Jackie Earle Haley, and Johnny Lee Miller, you'd probably think "Well, even if the film isn't very good, I suppose it will be an acting treat!". You would be wrong. Burton and company are going for a somewhat arch and stylized performance style most associated with soap operas, but that creative choice drains the film of anything approaching interesting performances or engaging characters (Eva Green gives it her all but is felled by a strained American accent). The film spends much of its first two acts playing out like a genuine soap opera, as Depp and either Pfeiffer or Green stand around and discuss the plot and recap everything that's come before. But at least those first two acts contain a token amount of narrative coherency. The third act spirals completely out of control with climactic events that both involve pointless special effects work and about three different kinds of deus ex machina. The film's climax both leaves most of its characters figuratively and literary stranded, not so much setting up a sequel as arbitrarily ending the film because the two hour mark is close at hand.
The film fails to build any kind of emotional investment in any of its characters. We are technically supposed to root for Barnabas to defeat the machinations of Green's Angelique, but other than the evil she perpetrates in the prologue, all she really does over the next 200 years is bring economic stability and prosperity to the town of Collinswood. Barnabas only achieves success through trickery and kills quite a few completely innocent people in his periodic blood-lust. The film acknowledges this contradiction, but basically asks us to cheer the destruction of a strong/successful businesswoman in order to bring economic fortune to a family that basically spent 200 years in near-poverty because they didn't know where the family fortune was hidden. Burton hammers home a pro-family values message ("There is no greater wealth than family") while somewhat mocking that cliche with an amusing third-act turn. It can be argued that Dark Shadows deserves credit for openly flaunting the immorality of its lead characters and not putting them on a pedestal purely for the sake of audience sympathy. But the lack of depth to the supporting characters, the lack of story momentum, and the poor attempts at comedy (Alice Cooper cameo-ing and not doing anything funny is not funny) leaves the film with nothing to engage the viewer.
The creepy gender undertones at play also annoy, as the dynamic between would-be love interest Bella Heathcote (comely, quiet, waiting for her suitor to call) vs Eva Green (bracing, sexually confident, in complete authority) could not be more virgin/whore if they tried. If I may speak pruriently, Eva Green looks absolutely stunning in this picture (Eva Green + power suit = win), in fact there is a treasure trove of beautiful actresses looking striking throughout the picture (Green, Heathcote, Moretz, Helena Bonham Carter, etc). The girls (or gay men) get no such favors, which is amusing as a very not-handsome Johnny Depp is constantly hit on by several female characters throughout. What entertainment value the film does possess is in its atmospheric production design and a few moments of successful comedy (a conversation about dating between Moretz and Depp elicits laughs, as does a bit of exposition set to ill-timed piano music). The picture, however visually striking (and pruriently appealing), is lacking in narrative thrust and amazingly inconsistent in tone.
Dark Shadows is a film that has no idea what it wants to be. It alternates between C-level fish-out-of-water comedy and supernatural horror, while occasionally playing in a genuine soap opera sandbox. It is nice to see a big-scale summer blockbuster packed to the gills with female characters (this film passes the Bechdel Test in the first reel), but I just wish so many of its actresses weren't wasted. Aside from Pfeiffer, Green, and arguably Moretz (she's too young/hungry to get lazy yet), the entire cast of the film mostly performs their scenes in the above-noted 'arch soap opera' styling that renders the film patently artificial. I have no idea what Tim Burton was trying to achieve with Dark Shadows, nor do I have much insight into what the movie is 'about'. Whether or not it's Burton's worst film is less important than the fact that, with seemingly free reign and complete artistic freedom, he's made a film this bad.