Tim Burton’s remake of Dark Shadows serves as a cautionary tale of what happens when you take of a collection of brilliant, talented people and allow them to make a multi-million dollar movie in a state of complete complacency. This movie sports a fantastic cast including Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Jackie Earl Haley, Chloe Moretz, and Eva Green among others; it benefits from slick production values; and it is based on an intriguing high concept. All of these great elements, however, never coalesce into anything more than a tedious theatrical experience.
Based on the cult TV series of the same name, Dark Shadows follows immortal vampire Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp, of course) as he attempts to restore his fallen family to a place of prominence and wealth. In a pre-title sequence, we are introduced to Collins, an 18th century merchant prince and a philanderer. After Collins spurns the advances of the witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), she counters by murdering his true love and transforming him into a vampire. Then, for good measure, she locks him in a coffin for 196 years. Following two centuries of dark captivity a construction crew building a McDonald’s unleashes him into the world of 1972. He finds his family, headed by matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), in a state of disrepair and takes it upon himself to rehabilitate the family name.
This movie has a lot of great elements, but they’re mostly nullified by a poor screenplay from Seth Grahame-Smith. Is this a comedy or a drama? Is it a satire of the original Dark Shadows or is it a love letter to it? I can’t tell. The filmmakers can’t decide either.
Everyone is given a perfunctory back story and a deep, dark secret; all of the women want to sleep with Barnabas. Just like in a bad soap opera. I get what Grahame-Smith is doing; it’s clever. But Burton and Grahame-Smith don’t go far enough to lampoon the tropes of soap operas so as to make the movie satirical, and they regard the characters with too much detached amusement to make this a real drama. The Result: Dark Shadows ends up as neither an effective melodrama nor a raucous farce.
In the past decade Tim Burton has transformed himself into the least daring director in Hollywood. We’ve all come to recognize the hallmarks of his latest movies: Johnny Depp in the lead, Burton’s wife Helena Bonham Carter in a prominent supporting role, dark neo-German expressionist visuals, a conventional “creepy” score by Danny Elfman, and tons of fog. If, like me, you’ve grown tired of seeing minor variations on this basic formula, this movie is happy to further disappoint you. Dark Shadows may as well have been re-titled Generic Tim Burton Movie.
Critics over time have consistently dumped on Tim Burton’s storytelling abilities, complaining that he has no idea how to craft a narrative or tailor his films to the three act structure so prevalent in Hollywood movies. And while that criticism is fair—Burton has all of the focus and patience of a child with ADHD—I think it misses the point of his movies. They’ve never been about the story; they’re more like character pieces. His most influential films have always been style over substance, darting from one disconnected scene to the next filled with dark gothic visuals and wild idiosyncratic performances from his actors, but they also tended to be hilarious and uniquely unforgettable.
Beetlejuice, for instance, is little more than a series comedic sketches from improvisational greats like Michael Keaton, Catherine O’Hara, and Alec Baldwin, but the movie is also imaginative and brutally funny. Beetlejuice didn’t need a coherent narrative, because the brilliant cast, Burton’s visual flair, and Danny Elfman’s iconic score combined were more than enough to create an instant classic.
Dark Shadows also darts around from one unconnected scene to the next before abruptly and unexpectedly ending, but the movie unfortunately diverges from the director’s earlier work here. Burton’s visuals have become overly familiar and have lost much of their luster; the assembled supporting cast, while filled with brilliant actors old and new, have nothing to do thanks to a weak screenplay from Grahame-Smith; and Danny Elfman, having spent the past decade competing against himself to see who could composing the blandest soundtrack in the history of cinema, may have finally succeeded in concocting a 100% forgettable musical score.
If it seems like I’m being unfairly tough by comparing Dark Shadows to Beetlejuice, know this: Tim Burton and Seth Grahame-Smith actively invite comparisons between the two movies. Early on in the story a ghost, hidden under a bed sheet with holes cut out for eye slits, appears to one of the characters, just like in Beetlejuice where Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis dress up in sheets to scare away their unwanted houseguests. At another point a wooden banister in the shape of a snake detaches itself from a stair case and attacks Michelle Pfeiffer. When witchy Angelique attacks Barnabas in an effort to get him to marry her against his will, she brings all of the art and sculptures in the house to life and uses them against the Collins family just as Michael Keaton’s poltergeist does at the end of Beetlejuice.
Tim Burton has never been a self referential director on the scale of Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino, but here he seems to be desperately reminding the audience of his former greatness. That makes me a little sad, because these little self referential bits reminded me of how great a Burton-directed Dark Shadows might have been if he was playing at the top of his game. Unfortunately Burton is far from being at his best at the moment and Dark Shadows might just be his weakest movie yet.