In eighteenth century Maine, Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) is cursed to become a vampire, then buried alive at the hands of spurned witch Angelique (Eva Green). Exhumed in 1972, he vows to restore the Collins family to its former glory, but must contend with Angelique to do so.
Put like that, Dark Shadows possesses a relatively straightforward structure. But Tim Burton’s latest is a difficult one to quantify, as at times it feels like neither fish nor foul. Ultimately this is more of a melodrama than an out-and-out comedy, but it wouldn’t be a Burton film if it weren’t presented with a self-amused flourish.
Somewhere around Sleepy Hollow Burton’s skill at handling action sequences improved significantly, and he handles the set pieces here with aplomb that was largely absent from (say) Batman. The scene setter opening promises more than it can pay off (Bella Heathcote’s dual role as his lover and her twentieth century double is underdeveloped) but the staging is exemplary. So too, you can almost hear Burton whooping with delight at the feeding frenzy of the unearthed Barnabas. In contrast, the seduction scene between Barnabas and Angelique falls flat. Unsurprising, as the director has always chosen such chaste material. It just doesn’t seem like his thing, and you can imagine him wanting to get it in the can as quickly as possible.
I wonder how much remained of John August’s script after Seth Grahame-Smith was brought in as a replacement. I suspect not a lot, as what is here feels messy and undisciplined. Which for a Burton film can be a boon, but he needs to be inspired enough to make the most of the material. Certainly, I felt the film succeeded for the most part despite, rather than because of, the writing. The milieu is heightened in the way that most of Burton’s films are, but the tone veers wildly even for him. Soap opera plotting mixes with blowjob jokes and a protagonist who makes no bones about massacring innocents. And then there’s the entirely unnecessary ’70s setting (which gives rise to an extended entirely unnecessary Alice Cooper cameo).
But this also meant that I was never too clear about what direction the film was going to take. Which is quite refreshing in blockbuster season, even if it was a symptom of an unfocused script. Again, maybe that just makes it a typical Burton film where script and character come second to distraction by the contents of his toy box.
There are no complaints regarding the supporting cast, with Eva Green reveling in her grade-A bitch, Michelle Pfeiffer (interesting to see her now in matriarch roles but only five years older than Depp, who’s romancing someone a quarter of a century younger than him), Johnny Lee Miller wearing a syrup and Jackie Earle Haley having fun in full Renfield mode. Bella Heathcote can’t hold her own against this lot, but she neither can she be blamed for the weakness of the character (that said, one thing I did like was the ambiguity concerning her “reincarnation”). Chloe Grace Moretz does her best with the troubled teenager part, but gets a poorly-realised third act reveal.
Then there’s Depp. If you don’t like Johnny in full eccentric mode you’ll want to give this a wide berth. His performance is most amusing, but Barnabas Collins isn’t a comedy engine of a character in the way that Beetlejuice is. Depp has free licence to indulge himself, but Barnabas is granted his share of pathos too. The climax, in particular, is played very much for its dramatic content.
I’ve seen this compared to Zemeckis’ Death Becomes Her and, quite aside from Eva Green’s skin problems, that’s not such a bad reference point. Both are curate’s eggs, and have received their fare share of brickbats. Indeed, Dark Shadows seems to have already been labelled a misfire (although it is proving more successful in the rest of the World than the US). Not unlike another perceived failure that has a lot going for it, Mars Attacks! Perhaps comparisons to the source TV show (little known outside of the States) worked against Shadows, as it fell at the twin hurdles of fan disapproval and throwing vast sums of money at reinventing a property that not enough people cared about anyway. This is not an unusual summer occurrence (Speed Racer, Land of the Lost) and there are often rewards in investigating fare that, for whatever reason, has proved too idiosyncratic for cross-over appeal.
I’d suggest this is Burton’s best since Big Fish, which some might retort wouldn’t be difficult. There’s an idea that the director has taken a prolonged tumble in the last decade (pretty much since his Planet of the Apes remake). But he’s always been an erratic filmmaker, less interested in narrative coherence than distractions and quirks of script or performance. It’s probably legitimate to bemoan settling for stamping his own stylistic template on pre-existing subject matter (rather than striking out with original material) but it’s not as if he hasn’t been doing that since his third feature. Dark Shadows may well achieve its own cult status in the future, distinct from that of the TV show, but it will more likely be a consequence of viewing it as an interesting failure, rather than a neglected gem.