I think it’s nice, really, that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are routinely given multimillion-dollar budgets to play dress-up. If Hollywood is going to blow its money on big-screen spectacles, better with them than Michael Bay. At least they have a consistently unique vision, and rarely cause headaches.
Dark Shadows, Depp and Burton’s riff on a 1960s soap opera about a family of supernatural blue bloods, is full of amusing indulgences: Depp’s elaborately aristocratic cadence as vampire Barnabas Collins; Burton’s penchant for actresses with wide eyes and eggshell faces; someone’s appreciation of Alice Cooper. In many ways, Dark Shadows is like the most expensive indie film ever made, full of bizarre bits and pieces and with little concern for Hollywood convention.
Still, artistic idiosyncrasies can only take you so far, both at Sundance and the multiplex. Dark Shadows is a narrative mess, even for a Burton film. An extensive prologue, in which we learn how Barnabas received his curse at the hands of a spurned witch (Eva Green), is heavy on the atmosphere, but fails to do any of the emotional table-setting. These two are supposed to be the fulcrum for the tale, but they’re Burton sketches, not characters in which we have any investment.
Jumping ahead a few hundred years, the movie shows more promise as we meet the Collins family circa 1972: elegant matron Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer); her rebellious teen daughter (Chloe Grace Moretz); Elizabeth’s weasel of a brother (Jonny Lee Miller); and his damaged son (Gulliver McGrath). Also on hand are the live-in family doctor (Helena Bonham Carter) and a new governess (Bella Heathcote), the latter of whom catches Barnabas’ eye when he returns from a restless grave.
Unfortunately, this clan presents Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith with too many plot possibilities. The actors are across-the-board entertaining – especially Eva Green, who growls and prowls with horror-comic gusto – but the movie spends far too much time chasing their various narrative threads. There is nothing holding this jumble of odd impulses and expensive makeup together.
That’s what’s missing from Dark Shadows: the gothic resonance we get from the best Burton pictures. Certainly this is better than Alice in Wonderland – which, during some sequences, could have been a Michael Bay production – but it’s still lacking a thematic undercurrent, the kind that made Edward Scissorhands work as a metaphor for alienation or Batman function as a consideration of fractured psyches. Dark Shadows has nothing going on in its dim corners; it’s Burton dressing up as himself.