Tim Burton, as the stylized director of such glorious oddities as Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, and Ed Wood, is the pied piper to the inner goth in all of us. So it is with a heavy heart Cinema Siren has to report Dark Shadows, while it might have moments of loopy greatness and top-notch production and costume design, it is on the whole the most tragic of cinematic sins, a bore.
The greatness is in some particularly exciting and fast paced scenes, that are strangely intermittent in its 116 minutes, and so at odds with the soap opera ploddings of the rest of the film. The first minutes of Dark Shadows show great promise. Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp, in his 8th partnership with director Burton) is the rakish son of a 1770s New World fishing magnate who spurns the love of maiden and secret witch Angelique (slinky and delightfully OTT French actress Eva Green in a spot on American accent).
To his detriment Barnabas has fallen for innocent waif Josette (Bella Heathcote), and Angelique curses her to jump from the cliffs of his estate, Collinwood Manor. She then curses Barnabas to eternity as a vampire buried "alive." Two hundred years later, some unfortunate workmen dig him up, making for him a delicious repast. So far so 20 minutes of excitement. Darkness, death and Johnny Depp inhabiting his beloved childhood character Barnabas with understated panache and emotional subtlety sounds like a recipe for a new Burton classic.
What happens next, which has been played repeatedly in previews, is a vampire out of water, navigating the brave newer world of the 1970s. He meets his descendants in the form of matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), her pouty teen daughter Carolyn (an annoyingly one dimensional Cloe Moretz), Elizabeth's useless brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), and his son, David (Gully McGrath).
Rounding out this weird bunch are the caretaker Willie (Jackie Earle Haley), David's frowzy, drunken psychiatrist Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter, a delicious mess given too little to do) and the new nanny Victoria with secrets who looks spittingly like Barbabas's lost love (also played by Heathcote). Angelique, now Angie, is still alive and is still a sexy succubus. She has crushed the Collins competition and runs a national seafood concern in town. Barbabas vows to get the Collins fortune back.
There are romantic and lusty entanglements and secrets to struggle with and reveal. The main plot from here is the power struggle between Barnabas and Angie, a blossoming love between Barnabas and Victoria, and the various emotional issues of the Collins family. The trouble is, the lack of cohesive plot or full character development and motivation leaves us caring little what happens for the rest of the movie.
All the characters when introduced are compelling enough to make us curious, but the story wanders and subplots dangle. We never know why Angie feels so passionately about her curses, we don't see much interaction between Barnabas and Victoria (who, by the way, looks all of 16, which lends an unwanted creep factor to their courtship), and the other characters never get a chance to develop. This is saddest for Pfeiffer's Elizabeth, whom she imbues with a great mix of cynical 70s seen-it-all fashion plate and fierce mama bear.
Burton diehards and movie lovers in general will find, as I did, the costume and production designs to be equal to some of his best movies. But those artistic challenges are the domain of Oscar winners Colleen Atwood and Rick Heinrichs, respectively. The costumes for Barnabas alone belong with Atwood's best work, and Elizabeth's ensembles are a trippy couture flashback from head to toe. Heinrichs' production designs—the moody Maine landscapes and mansion interiors—are a feast for the eyes wherever you look. The diverse color palette runs from bleak to monochrome to Technicolor and back.
A director like Tim Burton creates these unique, highly stylized yet recognizable worlds by integrating all the elements of his A-list production team to fulfill his own vision. We must credit or curse Burton for the movie as a whole… No doubt Atwood and Heinrichs glory in the expansive possibilities his productions provide. Still, he must also rein in or call foul on Seth Grahame-Smith's meandering script, balancing the action and violence with the soap opera vibe, (clearly an ode to the original TV show) seamlessly bringing those together while still making us care for his characters. He has the visuals down.
Burton fans, who are inadvertent fans of Atwood and Heinrichs, will want to see it for the look of it all. Depp fans will come to see him vamp it up, with his over the top makeup, as he deadpans jokes and wipes blood delicately off his chin. He sucks softly and carries a big shtick. It's always interesting to see what emotions or quirks he calls forth in his newest portrayal. Be warned with this undead gentleman, it's politesse and not passion.
It's not by any means the worst Burton film, but watching Dark Shadows feels like sleep walking in slow motion through an amusement park. It's slow going. There's no control over the proceedings. You are surrounded by beautiful things to see, but even the biggest thrill rides become perfunctory and when you wake up you barely remember the experience.