Wikipedia describes Dark Shadows as a “Gothic horror comedy-drama film.”
If I could only meet Tim Burton once, I’d love to ask him which one (or two) of those words did he really want this film to be.
I am trying, but I can’t recall any film in recent memory that is as much of an atonal nightmare as the latest collaboration between Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. Dark Shadows is their 8th film together (feels like a lot more, though) and while not as bad as their previous team-up, Alice in Wonderland, it’s certainly not worth writing home about.
The film opens in the 18th century with Barnabas Collins, a wealthy playboy in Collinsport, breaking the heart of Angelique Bouchard, who turns out to be a witch. To exact revenge, she kills his parents, forces his lovers to kill themselves and turns him into a vampire before burying him in a coffin for eternity. Almost 200 years later, Barnabas wakes up because of an accident and is befuddled by his surroundings. He goes to his family mansion, Collinwood Manor, and see that it’s a pale shadow of its former glory. Taking residence there, much to the chagrin of his dysfunctional descendants living there, Barnabas sets about restoring honor and prosperity to his name. Unfortunately, Angelique comes to know of his return and tries to win him back or kill him (if she can’t have him, no one can and yada yada yada).
Seth-Grahame Smith wrote the screenplay (John August was involved at an earlier stage. He receives story credit.) and it’s all over the place. The film opens as a straight-faced spooky drama and things look promising. But as soon as Barnabas wakes up in 1972, the film takes a drastic left turn and becomes a screwball comedy by treating Barnabas’ situation akin to a fish-out-of-water scenario. It still tries to maintain a semblance of horror and drama with the revenge subplot. However, it never manages to reconcile the two distinct tones and form a cohesive whole. For example, the movie expects you to laugh as Barnabas seeks advice in how to woo a girl but hilarity was the last thing on my mind when he killed all his advisors afterwards to quench his thirst for blood. This jarring mish-mash culminates in a generic action sequence that doesn’t engage, thrill or serve the plot in any satisfactory way, instead wrapping up loose threads in the blandest way possible.
Burton’s assimilated one of his best casts in recent times for Dark Shadows; it’s a shame the script gives them next-to-nothing to do. I actually liked Johnny Depp’s performance in bits and parts. He sells the comedic portions of the film very well. A person reacting to the quirks of an era he’s not from is hardly original material, but strangely enough those portions are the film’s strongest. In particular, there’s a scene Depp shares with Chloë Grace Moretz discussing The Carpenters that had me (and everyone else at my screening) howling. In an ensemble filled with strong performers, Chloë is the surprising scene-stealer. She displays superlative comic timing, making it all the more disheartening when the script decides upon a particularly baffling and unnecessary turn for her character in the third act. Eva Green, the main antagonist of the film, looks like a geometric and architectural marvel and plays Angelique with relish. Bella Heathcoate plays Barnabas’ ladylove and in the few scenes she has, she makes an undeniable impact. The rest of the cast, sadly enough, don’t have much to do.
If it’s a Tim Burton film of this millennium, then it must have an acutely pictorial aesthetic and Dark Shadows doesn’t stray from the trend. No matter what my complaints about the film, I won’t deny that it looks gorgeous. The opening credits arrive on screen accompanying beautiful images of a train rolling through the countryside and that itself made me eager to see who had shot the film. Sure enough, it was Bruno Delbonnel (whose work on Half-Blood Prince and A Very Long Engagement I’m very fond of) and he gives the entire production a visually pleasing look. Production design and set design are lavish and Burtonesque (whether that’s good or bad is entirely up to you). Colleen Atwood’s costumes deserve special mention; the work she’s produced for Eva Green’s Angelique, especially, is jaw-dropping.
When Dark Shadows ended, I was left in a state of puzzlement. Was this really all it had been building up to? Throughout its 113min runtime I kept thinking there was some narrative connecting tissue I wasn’t seeing yet and that by the end of the film all would be revealed. That never happened. Ultimately, Dark Shadows is a messy endeavor that’s unconvinced of its own gestalt. If Tim Burton and Johnny Depp worked for a while without each other, I wouldn’t shed a single tear.
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Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures