Dark Shadows

Tired blood

Being a Tim Burton movie, the new Dark Shadows is an exercise in the sort of gothic fantabula with which the director’s fans are familiar—perhaps, by now, overly so. It is also the eighth Burton film to star Johnny Depp. This has often been a good thing in the past: Depp’s natural star power is concentrated, in the manner of Harrison Ford, by his rather narrow range, and he’s an immensely likable performer. Here, though, his trademark charm can’t fully animate a movie that, much like the 1999 Sleepy Hollow, tends to wander about in search of a purpose.  

The story has been cleanly distilled by Burton vet John August and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith from more than 1200 episodes of the supernatural soap opera that ran on ABC from 1966 to 1971, and lumbered around in syndication for many years thereafter. But the script’s attempted condensation of this meandering tale is frustrated by the necessity of making room for nine lead characters (10, if you count Alice Cooper, who’s brought in for a party sequence to perform his old “Ballad of Dwight Fry” as accompaniment to a shuddery flashback.)

The movie begins with a rich helping of backstory, in which we see that young Barnabas Collins (Depp), scion of a prosperous fish-canning family in 18th century Maine, was turned into a vampire by a jealous servant girl named Angelique (Eva Green), who was enraged by his rejection of her in favor of a dreamy young woman named Josette (Bella Heathcote). Angelique was secretly a witch, and after engineering Josette’s suicide, she saw to it that Barnabas, now an accursed bloodsucker, was buried alive (or undead) in a chained coffin for the next nearly 200 years.

Leaping ahead to 1972, we see Barnabas accidently freed from his subterranean confinement by a construction-crew bulldozer. Disoriented after his long nap, he makes his way to Collinwood, the old family manse, now fallen into disrepair along with the family business, which has been eclipsed by a rival fish cannery run by the immortal Angelique, still on the scene. Barnabas presents himself to the current generation of Collinses: matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer); her sullen teenage daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz); Elizabeth’s wastrel brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller); his neglected son David (Gulliver McGrath); and a live-in psychiatrist named Julia (Helena Bonham Carter), who’s been treating the troubled David. There’s also a new governess named Victoria (Heathcote again), who strongly resembles the long-gone Josette; a shabby family retainer named Willie (Jackie Earle Haley); and an old woman, Mrs. Johnson (Ray Shirley), whose function within the ensemble is minimal.

After adjusting to Barnabas’ eccentric manner and appearance—his plaster-white face, blood-red lips, alarming talons, and seriously out-of-date clothing—the family accepts his offer to return as head of the household and restore the clan to its former prominence. Naturally, the vicious Angelique has no intention of allowing this to happen.

All of the usual Burton signifiers are on display here: the obsessive art design (grandly paneled rooms, hidden chambers, nooks and crannies beyond number) and sometimes glorious digital wonderments (leaden skies heavy with clouds, a magnificently craggy wind-swept cliff). And there are some extraordinary scenes, especially a wild seduction that has Barnabas and Angelique flying around a room and rolling across the ceiling in carnal abandon. There’s fond ‘70s japery throughout, and some snappy dialogue, too. (When Barnabas suggests a departure via the only form of transport he knows, Elizabeth replies, “We don’t have horses—we have a Chevy.”)

But Depp’s intentionally mannered presence—which draws as much from the classic Nosferatu as it does from Jonathan Frid’s original incarnation of Barnabas on TV—leeches energy from the proceedings, which are already cluttered by the script’s anxious need to provide bits of business for each of the many characters. The other actors are admirably committed to the material (Pfeiffer and Carter are particularly funny, and Green smolders with a memorable intensity); but they overmatch the sluggish story. What might have seemed campy fun in a cheapjack TV series is crushed under the weight of a big-budget Hollywood production. Despite the requisite splatterings of blood, the movie is in no way scary. It feels drained.    

Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, is now available. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.

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  • Wilt Chamberlain||

    It's a shame this is getting mediocre reviews from critics, I was hoping it would be pretty good. I'll still go see it though, I always have time for gothic Helena Bonham Carter.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Burton seems done. It happens to many directors. I've never considered him a great director, but he has made some nice films.

    I wonder if there's a Diogenes Club for directors who once had it but have finally lost it? Run by Coppola.

  • CockGobbla||

    1) Ed Wood
    2) Pee-wee's Big Adventure
    3) Batman (1989)
    4) Beetlejuice
    5) Sleepy Hollow
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    6) Batman Returns?

  • CockGobbla||

    After that, perhaps Big Fish, but then it goes to shit with Planet of the Apes and Michael Jackson and the Chocolate Factory.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I liked Big Fish. Think that's the last film of his I could tolerate.

  • NeonCat||

    I liked the flashback sequences of Big Fish, but all the scenes of the son exasperated at his tall-tale telling father just killed it for me.

  • Just Dropping By||

    Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was brilliant, IMHO, and it was Depp's performance that made it that way.

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    If you had put Depp's Willy Wonka in the Gene Wilder version, it might have come closer to how Dahl envisioned the story. I thought he captured the nature of Wonka's trickster archetype a lot better than Wilder did.

  • R C Dean||

    Alice In Wonderland has its moments.

    I think he was only executive producer or something, but I liked 9.

    The Nightmare Before Christmas was just excellent, I thought. But I have a weakness for animated movies.

  • kinnath||

    I liked Corpse Bride as well.

  • ||

    Nightmare Before Christmas!! Sheesh!

  • kinnath||

    No love for Edward Scissorhands?

  • amelia||

    Sweeney Todd. I loved it and HBC was AWESOME in it.

  • Tonio||

    I think "Mars Attacks" deserves honorable mention.

  • ||

    Mars Attacks was awesome, too.

  • Tim||

    Jack Nicholson getting stabbed. Heh.

  • NeonCat||

    "Hahha! They blew up Congress!"
    ***
    "We still have two out of three branches of government, and that ain't bad!"

  • CockGobbla||

    I anticipated this for Dark Shadows, but what was wrong with the Burton/Depp Sleepy Hollow?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I liked Sleepy Hollow.

  • Pro Libertate||

    As a wee lad, I was creeped out mightily by the old Dark Shadows theme. When I was older, we played the Dark Shadows board game, which was very popular.

  • amelia||

    I had that game! I so much wish I had managed to keep it, but who knew I'd care about Dark Shadows again 40 years later?

  • Tim||

    A year ago I would have said that The Avengers would be impossible to pull off, while Dark Shadows looked like a sure thing. Shows how much I know.

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    I knew it was toast the second I saw that Burton and Depp had taken on the project. Those two have been making the same type of movie together since 1991, and Burton can't make anything now without shoving his wife in there. Nepotisitic filmmaking is a near-guaranteed loser.

    Plus, what made the series somewhat charming was the fact that it was campy, but not self-conciously so. "Campy" is the only tone that Burton sets in his films anymore, and it's become tedious. Kids might really like it--the whole thing seems like a big live-action cartoon.

    Kudos for getting the scrumptious Eva Green on the project, though. I'll wait for it on DVD just to watch her.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    James Garner is pre-rolling in his grave:

    http://news.moviefone.com/2012.....32562.html

  • Pro Libertate||

    Oh, dear Lord. Really? You know it will just use the name, character, and setting, and lose all of the charm of the original.

  • Tim||

    No it will be better. He will have ethnically diverse friends and a spunky woman who is smarter than he is manipulating him from behind the scenes in a hip post ironic take on the dead white male original.

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    Maybe if Ben Stiller is kept far away from this thing it will turn out okay. But I have a feeling Tim's prediction will be much more accurate.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    We can bet the following:

    1. No Firebird, Trans-Am or otherwise. This Rockford will probably drive something "sensible".

    2. No smoking. Not that Garner's Rockford smoked, but can't be too safe.

    3. It's possible this Rockford won't carry a gun. After all, handguns are just as evil as smoking, in the Hollywood of the 21st century.

    4. It will just plain suck.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Whatever happens, #4 will be correct.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    It may even go past suck.

  • rac3rx||

    UGH...

    That is all.

  • ||

    This is disappointing, but I'm not surprised.

  • fried wylie||

    I saw a commercial for this a day or two ago, and thought it was an Adams Family sequel until they revealed the title at the end.

    "Johnny Depp is no Raul Julia...oh, it's not Adams Family 3, my bad."

  • amelia||

    Raul Julia is DEAD. Get over it. (hee, just kidding)

  • fried wylie||

    which is why they would cast Depp as Gomez in AF3, as my line of thought at the time went.

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