“Dark Shadows” pairs director Tim Burton and his muse, Johnny Depp, for their eighth cinematic collaboration. They have made great films together, notably “Edward Scissorhands” and “Ed Wood.”
By Noah Gittell
“Dark Shadows” pairs director Tim Burton and his muse, Johnny Depp, for their eighth cinematic collaboration. They have made great films together, notably “Edward Scissorhands” and “Ed Wood.” It would be easy to say “Dark Shadows” is their weakest collaboration, but we would then have to erase from our memory the stains of the recent tepid adaptations of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Alice in Wonderland.” Unlike those unnecessary films, “Dark Shadows” arrives with at least a small sense of purpose — to introduce a new generation to the cult classic television show on which the film is based — but Burton and Depp do the bare minimum with the opportunity.
Depp plays Barnabas Collins, whose 18th-century British family immigrated to Maine and built a town around their wealth. He became master of Collinwood Manor, only to suffer tragedy when a witch, whose love for him went unrequited, killed his girlfriend, turned him into a vampire, and locked him into a box. Through this backstory, told hastily and sloppily in voice-over narration by Barnabas, we quickly find our protagonist to be a typical Depp creation: a quirky outside with a funny voice and a weird sense of humor, but still oddly charismatic.
Two hundred years later, he awakens to find that his descendants have fallen into near-poverty and the witch who sentenced him to centuries of torture now runs the town that his family built. Being a proud vampire, he sets out to reclaim his family’s former glory. Despite the elaborate set-up, “Dark Shadows” is basically a simple fish-out-of-water comedy, as Depp’s prim and proper British colonist tries to make sense of a modern world. The jokes regarding fast food, lava lamps, and Alice Cooper recall similar, more successful gags in films like “Back to the Future,” “Blast from the Past,” and, I’m sorry to say, even Pauly Shore’s “Encino Man.”
This being a Tim Burton film, the art direction and visual effects are nearly worth the price of admission alone. When combined with Burton’s emotionally vulnerable protagonists, his dark visual style creates films that are accessible and commercial, but with a welcome touch of danger. His recent collaborations with Depp, however, have leaned towards the conventional. The oddness of “Dark Shadows” is safe, though thankfully unconventional.
Notwithstanding the fact that the plot wanders, the tone is uneven, and there is barely a whit of dramatic tension, “Dark Shadows” does at times put a product up on screen that we have not quite seen before.
What is so frustrating about the film is that one can clearly see the potential peeking through the curtains.
The two best scenes in the film are ones in which the entire family gathers around the table for a meal. The characters are not well drawn, but their interactions are honest and funny. There is Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), the matriarch; Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), her thieving, widowed brother; Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), the sullen teenager with a secret; David (Gulliver McGrath), Roger’s young son, still mourning the death of his mother; and Dr. Julia Hoffman (Burton’s wife, Helena Bonham Carter), David’s live-in, alcoholic psychiatrist.
It’s an eccentric group with a strong, relatable family dynamic. Given these elements to work with, Burton and Depp could have made a funny and rich meditation on family life. But the film’s most honest story elements are cast aside in favor of gags, pratfalls, and one-liners.
The title refers to Barnabas’s years of confinement, as he lay trapped in his tomb before being awoken when the story begins. He says that he stared into the “dark shadows” of his soul and found the truth. If Burton and Depp had taken a moment to do likewise, they might have produced a more meaningful and successful film.
My rating: Put it on your queue