Director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp’s history of collaborations could graciously be called a roller-coaster. The two have worked together on a total of eight movies, each to some degree sharing the same Tim Burton gothic quirkiness. Burton’s style is unique and specific and it’s easy to see how someone could be turned off by it. He’s also known to dabble in the same general themes and his movies often have the same look and tone. “Dark Shadows” is no different and you almost instantly know you are watching a Tim Burton picture. But to be honest, I’m not the biggest Burton fan and I’m rarely attracted to his films. But there was something about “Dark Shadows” that caught my attention.
The trailer and TV spots showed what could potentially be a hilarious dark comedy based on the “Dark Shadows” vampire soap opera from the late 60’s and early 70’s. Depp plays Barnabas Collins who finds his life turned upside down after breaking the heart of a witch named Angelique (Eva Green). The Collins family had moved from Liverpool, England to Maine and started a fishing village. They called it Collinsport and built the huge Collinwood Manor on top of a hill overlooking the town. Angelique was part of the Collins’ work staff and immediately fell for young Barnabas. But he never notices her especially after finding the love of his life Josette (Bella Heathcote). Taking the ‘woman scorned’ idea to new levels, she uses her black magic to cause the deaths of Barnabas’ parents and Josette. To take things even further, she turns Barnabas into a vampire then buries him in the forest in a chained up casket where he stays for almost 200 years.
But his casket is accidentally unearthed and Collins is eventually freed. The problem is that the year is 1972 and things certainly aren’t how they were when Barbabas was buried. At this point the movie seems set up to be another absurd fish-out-of-water story. In fact, that’s exactly what it was advertised as. And while there are some genuinely funny moments when Barnabas clashes with his new 1972 environment, it’s far from the meat and potatoes of the story. “Dark Shadows” actually plays things straight for much of the film and I often found the comedy to be back-burnered. To me Burton squandered a lot of potential by not spending more time on laughs. One minute he and Depp are winking their eye and having fun with the old show. The next minute they’re taking the story in a more serious direction. I found the absurdity of the comedy to clearly be the most fun.
After being freed, Barnanbas connects with the dysfunctional Collins descendants now living in the rundown Collinwood manor including Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Roger (Jonny Lee Miller). He also meets Carolyn (Chloe Moretz), a rebellious teenager and David (Gulliver McGrath), a young boy who believes in ghosts. Helena Bonham Carter plays a boozing psychiatrist living in the house supposedly to help David. He also meets Victoria Winters (also played by Heathcote) David’s governess who has a striking resemblance to Josette. Barnabas finds that his descendants have allowed their family fishing business to fall apart. He takes it upon himself to rebuild the business back to prominence especially after seeing that the rival fishing company is run by an incarnation of none other than Angelique.
One thing you instantly notice is that the film looks fantastic. Even when the story sputters, the visuals never do and the movie features some gorgeous camera work and fantastic makeup and costume design. Burton also does a nice job a recreating a believable 1972, an unusual time in American history that strangely fits a Tim Burton project. I loved the selection of 70’s pop and rock songs chosen for the film and there are several funny jokes involving things such as lava lamps, hippies, and The Carpenters. And while we’ve seen comedies that focus on misplaced people before, here it works pretty well. But unfortunately we only get snippets of it scattered throughout the picture. It’s mixed in with the more serious and straight-laced narrative which often times causes a frequent and almost distracting change of tone throughout the film. This isn’t so much due to Burton’s direction, but to the structure of the story.
Depp plays weird really well and here he gives his usual solid performance. His comfort level with pasty-faced Burton roles is evident and his own quirky sense of humor shines through. His goofy facial expressions and sometimes exaggerated line delivery really sells the Barnabas Collins character even during the times where the main story feels lifeless. Depp can get a laugh from the audience just by lifting an eye brow at the right moment and his performance was one of my favorite things about the film. Most of the other cast members are good particularly Jackie Earle Haley in a fun role as the Collinwood caretaker. There are no glaringly bad performances and to be honest, it’s Depp’s show.
“Dark Shadows” is a genre-jumper that moves between comedy, horror, drama, romance, and action yet never feels grounded in any of them. An argument could be made that this is a typical Tim Burton picture and if you’re a fan, you’re probably going to like it. And I certainly won’t deny that Burton’s fingerprints are all over the movie. But I just didn’t find myself as interested in the main story as I hoped to be. The comedy works and there are some truly clever and funny gags that you have to appreciate. Depp carries many scenes and makes them work just by his stiff and unusual character presentation. Things like this really work in the film. In other words, “Dark Shadows” isn’t a terrible movie. In fact, it’s far from it. But it is an inconsistent movie and one that I have a hard time embracing. I may like the film more after a second viewing, but right now it feels like a movie that had great comedic potential but only gave us a sampling of it.