Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have now made eight films together as director and star: interviews with both of them would suggest that they are kindred spirits, sharing the same baroque humour and attraction to strange, misunderstood characters. In Dark Shadows, an adaptation of a cult TV show from the late 60s, they have found a project that has let them indulge in their mutual love for campy old school horror.
Depp plays Barnabas Collins, a wealthy landowner in 18th century America who seduces the family’s maid (Eva Green) only to spurn her immediately. As it turns out, she’s a witch who ends up driving his true love to suicide, curses Depp to everlasting life as a vampire and -as a kicker- buries him alive until he’s accidentally unearthed almost 200 years later. Hell hath no fury, etc…
When he awakens in 1970s America, Depp has a lot of adjusting to do. He returns home to his family’s mansion on a hill (Burton’s films very often feature mansions on hills) and finds his descendants in residence. The new Collins clan is made up of matriarch Michelle Pfeiffer, her surly daughter Chloë Grace Moretz, her card of a brother Jonny Lee Miller, his ‘troubled’ son, their live-in psychiatrist Helena Bonham Carter -bien sûr- and the manor’s caretaker Jackie Earle Haley. It’s a pretty big cast for any film; and in any regular movie, it would be hard to keep track of the characters. But with Burton’s gift for bold designs, each character is dressed and coiffed in way that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about them.
Indeed, Dark Shadows has given Burton the opportunity to show off the talents he’s best known for. In the small fishing community of Collinsport, he’s created an off-kilter suburban cheese dream of a town: with its pastel-shaded building and perfect rows of pine trees, the design calls back to his work on Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. Every frame is designed to within an inch of its life and completely covered in their creator’s fingerprints.
But as much as you can credit Burton for the successes of this movie, you also have to attribute its weaknesses to him as well. As good as he is with design; Tim Burton has rarely excelled as a storyteller. In Dark Shadows, Burton plays with a bloated cast but is really unfocused as to whose story he’s telling. After the prologue in the 1700s, the action cuts to the 1970s where he focuses on the mysterious young governess as she’s introduced to the Collins family. She’s told again and again that her 10 year-old charge is a real handful and deeply troubled but when we finally meet the young boy, he seems deeply normal in comparison to his family of grotesques. On top of that, as soon as Johnny Depp rocks up on the scene, the governess storyline is pretty much abandoned and she merely serves as a perfunctory love interest for the vampire.
One of the main plots involves Depp’s efforts to restore his family name by rebuilding the Collins family fish cannery, which as it would turn out, is in direct competition with a business run by Eva Green (who has survived for centuries in Depp’s absence). On top of that, we have sub-plots that involve Johnny Lee Miller’s terrible parenting, the psychiatrist’s efforts to ‘cure’ Depp’s vampirism and Depp’s attempt to woo the governess. The components could very well have worked by themselves, but the structure for how they’re linked is a complete mess.
We have a developing theory here that Depp and Burton might actually exert a bad influence on each other, like co-dependent drug addicts. If you would indulge us a moment: as we saw in the first Pirates of the Caribbean, Depp is always fantastic in supporting roles. His Jack Sparrow was used in just the right amount in that film, whereas the sequels upped the volume of Captain Jack and gave us too much of a good thing. In Burton’s films, the same thing applies: Depp is cast as a supporting character but somehow ends up as the lead. Example: Willy Wonka shouldn’t be and wasn’t meant to be the main character in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And I don’t recall the Mad Hatter being one of the protagonists in any other version of Alice in Wonderland. As a result, both of those films were maddeningly unfocused as they flitted between Depp’s performances and the stories of the actual heroes. In Dark Shadows, too many characters are given huge character arcs that don’t land because there simply isn’t enough screen time to go around.
We’re only being picky because we feel that Dark Shadows could so easily have been a Burton classic. There’s so much good stuff going for this film: its popping visual style, talented cast and groovy 70s soundtrack; Johnny Depp is a complete ham but genuinely funny at playing this grandiose man out time; and Burton has created an unforgettable world as only he can. It’s such a shame that he has real trouble telling great stories within them. Dark Shadows is not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just oh-so-slightly disappointing.
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