Tim Burton and I are on different wavelengths. That he is a skilled filmmaker is beyond debate. That he can weave an entertaining story with effortless style and flawless production design is plain. We just don’t think the same things are funny. Anything can be funny if the joke is taken to a humorous place, but Burton seems content with set-ups. He’s far more amused at the look of confusion on Johnny Depp’s face than I am.
In Dark Shadows, Depp is Barnabas Collins, a New England vampire that was buried in the ground in the late 18th century and dug up in 1972 to find that the town his family founded, Collinsport, has for the last 200 years been under the tyranny of a witch named Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green). It was Angelique who cursed Barnabas to vampirism in the first place after he spurned her for another woman. Now she has made it her mission to destroy the Collins family and run their fishery business out of town. Barnabas finds the family’s fortunes and stately manor in disrepair and is dismayed to discover that one of his secret hiding closets as been acquisitioned for the matriarch’s macramé. That lady of the house is Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) who tries to keep order in the manor despite being undercut by her rebellious daughter, Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz), her deadbeat brother, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), and his mopey, disturbed son, David (Gulliver McGrath). Arriving much at the same time is Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), the spitting image of Barnabas’ lost love from 200 years ago, come to be an au pair to David. Barnabas vows to restore the Collins good name, destroy the evil Angelique, woo Victoria, and return himself to the land of the living, something he hopes he can accomplish through blood transfusions courtesy of the family’s live-in psychiatrist Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter).
Johnny Depp has, through eight collaborations with Burton, perfected the confused look that Burton loves so well. Here he trains it upon lava lamps, the McDonald’s golden arches, and Alice Cooper, who he must admit is the ugliest woman he’s ever seen. Most of this is routine, the expiration date on “What sorcery is this?” ran out a while ago, but Depp gets a laugh when he demands that a TV-bound Karen Carpenter, “Reveal [her]self, tiny songtress!” I just don’t feel that Depp’s considerable skills are best served by Burton, who revels in inventing new scenarios that require Depp to be a weirdo reacting to normalcy. The problem is that since Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Beetlejuice (1988), andEdward Scissorhands (1990), Burton has been surrounding his weirdos with more and more weirdos. The Collinses of 1972, while not vampires, are still pretty odd, and when Barnabas isn’t interacting with his family, he’s with Angelique, an undead witch more than two centuries old. Burton is at his best when he’s using his oddball protagonist as an instrument of illustrating the underlying strangeness of modern or acceptable life. That’s why in his best movies, such as Edward Scissorhands and the exemplary Ed Wood (1994), he uses the strange character to reveal the hidden weirdness of places (the suburbs in Scissorhands and certainly the Hollywood of Ed Wood). In Dark Shadows, it’s just weird all the time.
The project is a labor of love between Depp and Burton who both loved the series of the same name from the 1960s the movie is based on; in fact, Depp wanted to be Barnabas as a child. The movie gets the camp of the series but not its commitment. Burton always has a way of standing slightly outside of his stories, removed from taking their risks, able to keep his hands clean. As such, the script is a mess, with too many side-plots and largely abandoned material. A large narrative scope is ideal for a soap opera as the television series was, but it had 1,200 episodes to go through; when you have to say something in less than two hours, focus is key. The first third of the movie sets up the boy David’s mental disturbance but the movie doesn’t see it through. Barnabas’ resuscitation of the family business is rushed through, the courtship between Barnabas and Victoria is underdone, and the only plot element that is clearly defined is the feud between Barnabas and Angelique, where the movie should have stayed the whole time. Green is very good as the witch and possesses the perfect Burton presence. There’s something macabre about her, and she has a Vampira-like shape and a head that’s slightly larger than most. She and Depp share a love scene that is the closest to a fully realized idea that Dark Shadows comes. They have a storyline with a pulse (ironic for two undead individuals), whereas the rest seems perfunctory, or worse, apathetic.
The movie looks great, in Burton’s trademark wooded darkness. Strong flashes of red and white can be seen in the spooky and immaculate Gothic mansion. Everyone’s dressed to the nines in fetishistic oppressive dresses and suits, even Moretz’s teenage daughter (she’s also very good in a broad performance), who wears more casual period clothes and seems less clothed than entombed. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t give these interesting-looking people anything interesting to do.