There was a point in time where Tim Burton was my favorite director. Part of my love for him stemmed from a small film palette, but his flights of whimsy were always welcomed. He was the weird guy with enough emotional sensibilities to penetrate a viewer’s heart. No matter how many spiral designs he had in play or how acutely askew his leads were, Burton found a way to make a distant world feel familiar. Unfortunately, Burton’s emotional attentiveness has been absent since 2007, a year in which he delivered the bloody brilliant Sweeney Todd. Prior to 2008, Burton was Hollywood’s guy for the macabre and sweet. Depp had a similar stranglehold on leading roles with strange flairs. It seemed only natural for Burton and Depp to be sparks of inspiration for one another. These two men forged a relationship that allowed viewers a breath of fresh air. Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands remind us of the potential power Burton and Depp can conjure. Now, on the heels of back to back films, it’s a stale endeavor. Dark Shadows is representative of such a fact. Based on the serial drama from the 60’s, Dark Shadows sees Burton and Depp resurrecting a cult show for their own indulgence.
As it stands, Dark Shadows tells the tale of Barnabas Collins (Depp), a wealthy man with an untouchable business acumen circa the late 1700s. Collins and his wealthy family trek towards the New World and start their own fishing port known as Collinsport. There, Barnabas falls in love with his sweet Josette (Bella Heathcote) and scorns a lovelorn stalker named Angelique (Eva Green). Barnabas comes to see this as a mistake for one reason: Angelique is a witch that isn’t afraid to use her powers out of spite. Upon Barnabas’ romantic dismissal, Angelique kills his parents, incites suicide from the love of his life, and casts him into the shadows for two hundred years as a vampire. A buried coffin provides Barnabas with many years to think about his love life. Thanks to a well-placed McDonald’s joke, and overzealous construction workers, Baranabas awakes from his slumber in 1972. It’s at this time that the Collin’s family business is crumbling just as much as its hierarchical structure. At the top of the family is Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer). Elizabeth has to contend with her greedy brother, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), her distant teenage daughter (Chloe Moretz), her traumatized nephew (Gulliver McGrath), and in-house psychologist that does more drinking than psychological assessments (Helena Bonham Carter as Dr. Julia Hoffman).
Upon Barnabas’ assimilation back into the family, he discovers that the witch that made him blood thirsty is still around and siphoning off the family’s name in the fish industry. Angelique is now known as Angie, and she still pines for Barnabas’ heart or his death. Rounding out the plot is the presence of the Collin’s family governess, Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), a woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to Barnabas’ long lost love. Complicating incident alert! Considering the dark grooves within the plot and the level of punch lines Dark Shadows attempts to pull, Burton is aiming for a film that harkens back to the fantastic Beetlejuice. Instead, he has crafted a film that is closely related to the messy Alice in Wonderland. The biggest issue plaguing Dark Shadows is its lack of conviction. Most notably, every character in the film goes into a line of empty dialogue describing how family is important, yet there is very little effort to give them the screen time to develop a relationship with gravitas. We wouldn’t know that these characters were family if not for their incessant bitching about a cursed lineage and the fact they sleep in the same house.
Realistically, the screenplay serves only one purpose: providing Depp and Burton an opportunity to play with nostalgia. Without the necessary chemistry and character construction, the themes of family fall flat on their face. Not helping matters is the film’s cyclical conflict revolving around the lusting hate between Barnabas and Angelique. There are some laughs at the expense of the century old feud between the two, especially Eva Green’s efforts, but the film takes them nowhere interesting. It recycles the same bitter showdown over and over again. Angelique threatens Barnabas’ life; Barnabas responds with some witty line through ye olde English. Rinse, lather and repeat. For those who enjoy eye-ball candy, Burton’s visual panache is still intact, as is his dark humor. What the film lacks is a level of focus and reasoning for its existence. Some will say that watching Burton and Depp craft another weird character is worth the price of admission, but it isn’t. What made the likes of Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, and Sweeney Todd so memorable is their affection for the odd while maintaining real world emotions. Clearly, Burton and Depp have an affinity for Dark Shadows, but it seems their powerhouse relationship has evolved to the point that no one will stop them from over indulging like Augustus Gloop at Wonka’s chocolate river. It’s a shame the film turned out this way. Dark Shadows looked liked it had the bite of Burton’s previous endeavors, but it doesn’t draw blood.