by Steve Habrat
After the debacle that was 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, things could only look up for auteur Tim Burton. My initial reaction was not blame at Burton himself but rather was aimed at Disney, who I was certain was tinkering with Burton’s vision. Now we have a new Burton and Johnny Depp mash-up with a remake of the supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows, which is a small step up from Alice in Wonderland but not by much. Dark Shadows is half a good movie and half an even bigger disaster than Alice in Wonderland was. Depp has said in interviews that Dark Shadows is meant to do away with “vampires that look like underwear models”, which is an obvious jab at the perplexingly popular Twilight saga. While Dark Shadows does restore a smidgeon of honor to the vampire genre, Burton shoots his own film in the foot by tacking on an asinine climax that is slathered in CGI nonsense and a droll final showdown that is a stiff as they come. The ending of Dark Shadows left me wondering if Burton is indeed loosing some of his creative juice after all and Disney wasn’t fully to blame for the botched Alice in Wonderland.
Dark Shadows begins in 1782, with Joshua and Naomi Collins leaving Liverpool, England to begin a new life in North America. They bring with them their young son Barnabas, who grows up to be a wealthy playboy and master of Collinwood Manor, the Collins’ gothic seaside dwelling. Barnabas (Played by Johnny Depp) ends up breaking the heart of a witch named Angelique Bouchard (Played by Eva Green), who in turn puts a curse on the Collins to get revenge on Barnabas. After the horrific death of his parents and the love of his life leaping to her death, Barnabas finds himself cursed as a vampire and buried alive in a shallow grave by the fearful citizens of Collinsport, Maine. After being confined for 196 years, a construction crew accidentally frees Barnabas into the alien world of 1972. Confused by the new world around him, Barnabas returns to Collinwood Manor to find the once glorious estate in ruin. Barnabas is quickly introduced to family matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Played by Michelle Pfeiffer) and the rest of his dysfunctional descendants. Horrified but the state of the family, Barnabas sets out to restore honor to his family but finds himself pitted once again against the evil Angelique, who is determined to make his undead life even more of a living hell than it already is.
The first half of Dark Shadows is a hilarious fish-out-of-water tale about Barnabas trying so desperately to adjust to life in 1972. He tiptoes about Collinsport with weary caution, baffled by McDonalds, lava lamps, the board game Operation, and television (Trust me, there is tons more that intrigues Barnabas). Elizabeth’s rebellious teenage daughter Carolyn (Played by Chloe Grace Mortez) is appalled by Barnabas, especially when he mistakes her for a prostitute during the first meeting. Set to classic tunes from the Nixon era, Dark Shadows really finds its funky groove early on even if that groove is made up of dry humor. Things really get moving when Barnabas revives the family business, attempts to connect with his relatives (a conversation about wooing women with Carolyn is the highlight moment), and is tortured by Angelique. Half way through, it seems as if Burton remembered that he is making a film that will be released during the summer movie season. He crams the second half of Dark Shadows with nonsensical explosions, CGI creatures, narrow rescues, and a fiery final confrontation. It’s like Burton began making an entirely different movie altogether.
In addition to the quirky first hour, Depp and his supporting cast manage to keep Dark Shadows afloat even when the project falls apart around them. Speaking in a rich British accent and painted up in pasty white make-up, Depp’s Barnabas is one of the politest bloodsuckers to inhabit the screen. He apologizes when he drains one of his poor victims of blood and stands for a lady when she approaches the dinner table. When the vampire violence is called for, Depp becomes vicious but he remains delicate and sensitive for a good majority of Dark Shadows. Near the end, Burton attempts to sell Barnabas as an action hero, a requirement that Depp seems uncomfortable with and it’s blatantly obvious. In addition to his awkward turn at the end, Burton edges Depp out of the way almost completely to unleash multiple twists and reveals for the rest of the cast members. Yet overall, the entire film and the supporting cast really perk up when Depp enters the screen. His performance is silky smooth and his comedic timing is impeccable.
Burton fills the supporting roles of Dark Shadows with the usual suspects as well as several new faces. Burton’s squeeze Helena Bonham Carter shows up as orange haired Dr. Julia Hoffman, the family psychiatrist who is perpetually recovering from the night before and has an infatuation with staying young. Michelle Pfeiffer, who (funny enough) appears to not age, holds her own as the family matriarch Elizabeth. Pfeiffer has some razor sharp chemistry with Depp and I would have liked to have seen more. Christopher Lee has a brief cameo as a sailor who enjoys sipping beer in the local pub. As far as new faces go, the always-welcome Chloe Grace Mortez as Elizabeth’s daughter does rebellious teen a little too good and snags all the best moments with Depp. Eva Green smolders as the sexy Angelique, who seems on top of the world seducing and tormenting Barnabas. Bella Heathcothe as governess Victoria Winters checks in with a rather quiet and reserved performance. She isn’t given too much to do besides be wooed by Barnabas and interact with a CGI ghost. Jackie Earle Hayle as caretaker Willie Loomis, Jonny Lee Miller as Elizabeth’s irresponsible brother Roger, and Gulliver McGrath as Roger’s ghost-seeing son David all do a fine job but are given very little to do.
I wish that screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith had developed a better story that would have stretched through all 113 minutes of Dark Shadows. The film’s plot dries up halfway through, pauses for a musical intermission from Alice Cooper, and then continues to sputter by on fumes for the rest of its runtime. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Burton and the rest of his crew realized that they had a bunch of money left over so they decided to dump a bunch of unnecessary CGI into the hollow climax. Had Dark Shadows remained consistent, this could have been a serious return to form for the vampire genre, one that manages to be fun, sexy, thrilling, and, yes, creepy too, but Burton and Warner Brothers just couldn’t resist blowing a few things up to appeal to the summer movie crowd. At least Depp held it together and refused to allow Burton to drive a stake through his dignity.