Tim Burton used to be a phenomenal filmmaker. In the early years of his career he was making movies that looked like nothing else on the planet and crafting strange-yet-wonderful stories to propel them. For the last decade, however, Burton has been doing nothing but remakes and rehashes of stories we’ve all seen before, tinging them with same Burton-esque feel that he established in the early days of his career. Now he’s bringing us an adaptation of the 70s soap opera Dark Shadows, and while I'm still confident that Burton can still turn his career around, his new film makes it significantly harder to really believe it.
The story begins in the 1700s, when the Collins family, including the young Barnabas (Johnny Depp), moves from Liverpool to New Hampshire to expand the family fishing business. They succeed, but when Barnabas scorns one of the servants, Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), and instead falls in love with the beautiful Josette DuPres (Bella Heathcote), Angelique reveals herself as a witch, kills Josette, and turns Barnabas into a vampire – before having him buried alive. Nearly two centuries later, Barnabas is awoken and introduced to the much-changed world of 1972 where he learns that his family’s estate is in ruin and that there are only four remaining members of the Collins family (Michelle Pfeiffer, Jonny Lee Miller, Gulliver McGrath, Chloe Moretz). He then makes it his mission to bring his clan back from the brink, but then he discovers that Angelique is still around.
The script for Dark Shadows, written by Seth Grahame-Smith, is one of the laziest I’ve seen in a long time. The plot is never made more complex or fleshed out beyond what you read above, and the result is intensely dull. The plot is drawn out by half-assed attempts to create inter-character relationships, but the scenes are never filled with substance, just more excuses to make fun of the fact that Barnabas is either a) new to the 20th century or b) a vampire who must experience life in a much different, kookier way. The audience is led to believe that the most important pairing of the film is Barnabas and a descendant of Josette named Victoria Winters (also Heathcote), but Grahame-Smith and Burton actually try to build chemistry between their characters through montage. The movie’s structure is like mismatched puzzle pieces being put together by a frustrated 10-year-old: it’s quite clear that the parts don’t fit together, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t going to force them anyway.
Terrible as the pacing, structure and plot are, the real weak link in the chain is Barnabas himself. Depp isn’t bad in the part, but movie-goers are never given any reason to appreciate him as a character because nothing he does makes much sense. Despite the fact that the character is supposed to be in love with Victoria, he actually ends up having sexual encounters with two other women. It’s not hard to understand this from the “he’s an inhuman monster” perspective, but if you’re going to use that as an excuse, then why try to give the character a heart in the first place? Most of the movie is just Barnabas walking around meeting other people (such as a random scene where he sits by a fire with a bunch of hippies for no reason), but he’s not nearly entertaining enough to sustain the boring story.
To the film’s credit, the movie does create a fun, interesting look back at the 1970s. The soundtrack is filled with great music from bands like Black Sabbath, Donovan, The Moody Blues and Alice Cooper (though the latter’s cameo is pointless). As usual for a Burton film, the costumes, makeup and production design are all fascinating to look at, and while the filmmaker occasionally overdoes his personal brand of kookiness, there are other moments where it is thankfully toned down. Burton has created a visually interesting world; he just failed to fill it with interesting characters.
The movie is completely tone deaf – unsure if it’s a horror movie, a comedy or a drama – and never finds anything interesting in the characters for the audience to latch on to. I suppose it’s possible that Dark Shadows is a big elaborate joke that only fans of the old television show will get, but I also think that’s giving Burton and company way too much credit.