I wasn’t expecting much from Dark Shadows, the latest in the ubiquitous onslaught of vampire films, so to say the film lived up to my expectations may be a bit misleading as far as its overall quality. Tim Burton’s latest collaboration with Johnny Depp is good enough to amuse, but not quite good enough to do anything else. It’s not overly funny, though it’s supposed to be a comedy, and it’s not scary at all, though it has elements of horror running through it as well. So the result is a hodgepodge of tonal inconsistencies, and though it has brief moments of the Burton we used to know, Dark Shadows is, ironically, a vampire movie with no bite.
Depp plays Barnabas Collins, a member of an industrious English family that moves to America to start a fishing business. When he spurns the love of his household servant, Angelique (Eva Green), he’s messed with the wrong girl: she’s actually a witch, and proceeds to murder his parents, kill the love of his life, turn Barnabas into a vampire, and then bury him alive for 200 years. Yikes. He’s released in 1972, and the rest of the movie is a series of culture shocks mixed in with a meandering story about Barnabas attempting to restore the family to its former glory. The modern-day Collins family is kind of a mess: Michelle Pfeiffer plays the matriarch, barely keeping their floundering business afloat; Chloe Moretz plays a testy teenager with an attitude; Gulliver McGrath is David, a young boy who can see ghosts; and Jonny Lee Miller plays the young boy’s philandering father. The rest of the supporting cast includes Helena Bonham Carter as a live-in doctor who is supposed to be helping David, Jackie Earle Haley as a drunken servant, and Bella Heathcote as Victoria Winters, David’s nanny and the new love interest for Barnabas.
Burton and Seth Grahame-Smith, the screenwriter, seem much more interested in comedy than horror here. They’d be lost, however, without Depp’s performance as the proper 18th century Englishman; his delivery of verbose dialogue provides fodder for many humorous encounters with 1970s technology, such as when he sees a car for the first time coming at him through the forest and yells at Satan, “mark me not with your strange luminance!” Ultimately, though, these moments alone aren’t enough to keep us laughing throughout. There’s only so much of that one gag we can take before it starts to fall flat, and while the rest of the cast is undoubtedly talented, the script doesn’t give them much to work with in the way of comedy.
Also inconsistent are the rules of vampiric lore, which seem to be played as a punch line when convenient and ignored elsewhere. Barnabas literally catches on fire at one point when he’s hit by a beam of sunlight (typical in the vampire mythos), but other times he carries on conversations while standing in the sun, sometimes not even fully covered by an umbrella or dark clothing. It’s a sign of laziness on the screenwriter’s part, wanting to have it both ways so Barnabas can operate during the day and interact with the 70s setting instead of being confined to the night (as he should have been). And speaking of inconsistencies, the love story between Barnabas and Victoria Winters seemed totally out of nowhere and completely unearned. There’s a revelation near the end that, despite describing the reasoning for her character being there, still doesn’t really make a ton of sense, and then a series of events during the film’s climax that is still baffling to me. Proper setup and payoffs apparently weren’t high on anyone’s priority list.
Eva Green’s performance is the only other worth mentioning, since she did some great work as the jealous witch. Her character is one of the few that I felt really committed to the classical melodrama the film was attempting to recreate (there’s a nice scene at the beginning when she turns Barnabas into a vampire), and her cracking facade near the film’s end was one of the coolest visual effect tricks in a movie that was surprisingly boring in that regard (especially considering Burton’s proclivity for cartoonish designs).
There’s a nice message in Dark Shadows about how family is the only true measure of wealth, but sadly that’s one of the few things that’s actually clearly presented in this zany story. Burton and Depp have been in a comfortable groove for a long time, and I can’t help but wonder if they’d both be better off working together in a totally different type of movie, one that ditches the gothic setting and idiosyncratic characters in favor of something fresh and new. At the same time, though, I appreciate the fact that Burton has carved out a place for himself in the movie landscape, as it’s always difficult for artists to establish a voice in this marketplace. I just wish he’d sing a different tune once in a while. (Big Fish, anyone?) Until next time…