A few excellent performances aren’t able to shed light on Tim Burton’s anemic adaptation of Dark Shadows.
WARNING! (OMINOUS ORGAN CHORD) MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS!
In the 18th century, rich and handsome Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) spurns the advances of Angelique (Eva Green), who just happens to be a rather vengeful witch. After killing his family and his love Josette (Bella Heathcote), Angelique turns Barnabas into a vampire and seals him in a locked coffin to be alone with his misery for eternity. In 1972, Barnabas is accidentally unearthed and finds that the once-proud Collins family has fallen into tatters, barely held together by matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), who lives in the crumbling Collinwood manor with her caddish brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), her surly daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz), Roger’s troubled son David (Gulliver McGrath) and David’s live-in psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter, because of course). Barnabas immediately sets about restoring the family name, as well as trying to romance David’s governess Victoria Winters (Heathcote again) who bears an uncanny resemblance to Josette. Unfortunately, Angelique is still around, and she hasn’t forgotten her promise to make Barnabas’ life a living hell if she can’t have his love.
The original Dark Shadows soap opera ran from 1966 to 1971, creating over 1,200 episodes of supernatural melodrama, two movies, a short-lived revival in 1991 and an unaired pilot for a second revival in 2004. To cram all that into one film is a daunting task, indeed, even for a director as seasoned and skilled as Tim Burton. However, as Burton’s regrettably and inexplicably staid take on Alice In Wonderland reminds us, he is not infallible, and he can only do so much to punch up material that can’t stand on its own. Despite his and the cast’s best efforts, this Dark Shadows is an anemic muddle that’s an adaptation in name and little else.
Good morning, starshine.
The bulk of the blame deserves to be placed on the head of screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith. As the writer of the novels Pride, Prejudice & Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Grahame-Smith would seem like an obvious choice and a perfect fit for the material. While quite a bit of the script’s dialogue sounds fine, it’s not the words that trip up the film, but the story. Or, more accurately, what passes for a story. Grahame-Smith rushes through most of the major events that have survived through each incarnation of the series, passing them by for a protracted corporate battle between the Collins’ centuries-old fishing business and Angelique’s competing fishery, which has effectively stolen virtually all of the Collins’ business by the time Barnabas is reawakened. While the concept of a vampire and a witch engaging in office fisticuffs seems amusing in theory, the practice of it never really taps into the satirical possibilities of CEOs who have literally made deals with the devil and suck the blood of their enemies.
There’s a kind of schizophrenia happening within the film that leaves it unbalanced and disconcertingly atonal. It can never decide if it wants to be a dark comedy or a gothic horror. Tim Burton has done both, and he often does well at combining the two into a coherent whole. In fact, it’s become his signature and almost a genre unto itself. Here, however, the two sides never merge organically. Like Alice, the whimsy here feels forced, and the drama feels unfocused and unsourced. It manages to hold itself together until the third act, at which point the film devolves into an anonymous CGI-heavy supernatural thriller without warning, with sudden and arbitrary plot twists popping up left and right. While there’s a history of random plot developments appearing out of nowhere within soap operas, the developments in the film’s climax are never played for the satire they should be.
Take a letter, Helena.
For most of the film, Burton is able to hide the inadequacies in the story by framing it with a number of digs at the property’s soap opera origins. A number of conversations are shot in dramatic close-up with both actors backs turned to one another, and one of the best moments in the film involves the use of an organ to add extra emphasis to a conversation. That trick only goes so far, though, and the closer the film gets to the final scenes, the less Burton feels the need to use it. Admittedly, some of the CGI is pretty cool, and Burton does quite a bit with his trademark almost-mainstream morbidity, but the film loses identity and drive the faster it barrels down to the big finish.
The reason to see the film, and the reason it doesn’t fall apart completely before the end credits, is a trio of excellent performances by Johnny Depp, Eva Green and Michelle Pfeiffer. A Depp/Burton collaboration has for the past few years meant only one thing: Johnny Depp gets to wear a lot of makeup and surround himself with affectations while playing a damaged-yet-sympathetic-but-probably-sociopathic outsider. Only this time, it actually works. Depp is an obvious choice for Barnabas Collins, even if Burton weren’t involved, and he’s more than able to wrap his mouth around the florid proclamations Barnabas speaks. Barnabas uses his words as a sword and a shield, an effective barrier that serves to keep his upper lip stiff and his emotions in check but can also cut down an opponent when that barrier fails. Few actors could have made Barnabas as likable as he is here, even making the massacre of a pack of hippies seem like a good time.
No more Mr. Nice Guy.
Green and Pfeiffer are both excellent in their scenes with Depp, and it’s kind of sad that the two actresses share so few scenes together. Pfeiffer effortlessly conveys Elizabeth’s steely resolve while maintaing her powerful allure. There’s never any doubt that she’s the head of the Collins family, and she’s perhaps the only person in the film who’s strong enough to meet Barnabas on solid ground as an equal. Pfeiffer is still gorgeous, of course, a kind of ageless, regal bearing that improves with time. Green is an effective flip-side to Pfeiffer’s feminine power. Angelique is a creature of lusts and desires who acts on her impulses with the same determination that Elizabeth uses to bottle them up. Green is great at emphasizing Angelique’s playful side even while reminding the audience that her flirtatiousness hides a black, vengeful heart that, oddly enough, doesn’t make her any less alluring. Like Pfeiffer, Green is a natural beauty, unaffected.
The witch is back.
Depp, Green and Pfeiffer are actually so good in their roles that they completely overshadow the rest of the cast, which at times isn’t hard to do. Jonny Lee Miller is on autopilot, as is Helena Bonham Carter, although she has more than one amusing moment as the pill-popping doctor. Even on autopilot, she’s a better actress than most. Chloë Moretz spends most of the movie in the same pouty expression that threatened to freeze itself into Alicia Silverstone‘s face back in the day, but the script doesn’t give her a chance to do much else. Most frustrating of all is Heathcote, who is probably a very lovely young woman, but is virtually a non-entity during the entire running time of the film, no matter which role she’s playing. Her romance with Barnabas is never believable, and one of the few good things that can be said about the vertigo-inducing final act is that it shoves Victoria’s subplot off the screen for a good 30 minutes.
I am Pfeiffer, hear me roar.
What seems like it should work amazingly well just turns out to disappoint. There’s really no explanation for it. All the elements are there, but they never come together in any meaningful way. Despite a few great performances and the occasional moment of genuine wit, Burton and company don’t add much of note to the Dark Shadows universe. But don’t despair; give it another 10 years and somebody else will probably take another shot at it. They might even bring back those cute rubber bats on strings.
Rating: 5 out of 10 / C
JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and needs to go to the store for more garlic.