DARK SHADOWS (2012, directed by Tim Burton, 113 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Eyebrows were raised when it was announced that Johnny Depp would be fulfilling a life-long dream by portraying Barnabas Collins in a film version of the late 60’s soap opera Dark Shadows directed by his longtime collaborator Tim Burton. The hypnotically-turgid Gothic soap opera is loaded with nostalgic appeal to baby boomers, who were a little aghast when the trailer arrived and revealed that Burton and Depp had turned the drama into an Addams Family-style comedy. Resigned to the fact the source of my first childhood nightmare has been mined for laughs, Burton’s Dark Shadows surprised me by being more faithful to the plotline of the original series than I had expected, yet despite the talent on display, Dark Shadows a distressingly anemic affair.
Partially doomed for its obviousness, Burton has long mined the dark and surreal pop culture hits of the late 60s and 70s, from Batman, Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Family, to Sweeney Todd. Burton doesn’t bring much of a philosophical re-think of these stories, instead he draws on his background as an animator to create a sort of beatific expressionist gloom to the production design. The best thing about Burton’s film is that enveloping blue overcast look, facilitated by Amélie cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. The opening is particularly gorgeous, with the rainswept cliff of Widow’s Hill and the mournful tune of “Nights in White Satin” giving the film a dreamy and romantic kick off. Here we learn the Barnabas legend: In 1752 the wealthy playboy spurned the attentions of the witch Angelique (the oh so Eva Green), who turns Barnabas into a vampire and leads his true love Josette (Bella Heathcote) to walk off the end of Widow’s Hill to her death. Barnabas is buried alive and awakes again in 1972, where he will once again live in the Collinswood mansion amongst his spoiled and shifty descendants.
Yet once Barnabas arrives in the sexy swinging 70s, Dark Shadows seems to falter on a game plan and the film reveals the fact that it has no idea why it exists. This is the first feature film screenplay from Seth Grahame-Smith, the acclaimed best-selling author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and the forthcoming film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Killer, and Dark Shadows’ limp narrative leaves you to wonder whether Grahame-Smith’s talents extend beyond glib pastiche. His script makes Dark Shadows a satire, maybe, but of what? The fashions of 40 years ago? The style of soap opera acting in the 70s? Class goes pretty much un-skewered, although the trust-fund types of the Collins family are anything but noble. Instead, you have a film busy with a tangle of plot threads (Blackmail! Lost Love! Werewolf!) but no inter-locking purpose, just shtick that seems lifted from some lame late-period Mel Brooks spoof. Jokes include a stream of green puke that fires erratically at a character’s face, which made me feel as weary as the glum expression worn by Depp’s Barnabas.
Along the way, Barnabas disposes of some amusingly dreamy-eyed hippies (a swipe at the Occupy movement perhaps?) and a 64-year-old Alice Cooper lip-syncs to “No More Mister Nice Guy” in the Blue Whale nightclub, both scenes supplying a few smiles before the film lumbers to a noisy, graceless, altogether pointless ending. In the finale the gamest of the performers, the believably unhinged Eva Green, jerks and twists her frame in a manner that recalls Robert Zemeckis’ C.G.I.’d climax in Death Becomes Her. Dark Shadows shares a similar noisy charmlessness with that film, ultimately becoming another half-assed adaptation from Burton, whose increasingly familiar (deadeningly familiar?) style can’t disguise the hollowness of his content. And after bringing Gothic horror to life in everything from Frankenweenie to The Corpse Bride, Burton doesn’t have much new visually to bring to the genre.
What made Dark Shadows interesting wasn’t that it was a great horror story, it was that it was a soap opera about ghouls and monsters, with their underlying menace stretched-out to that methodical “five tossed-together shows a week” rhythm. Molding those elements back into a movie shears them of their unique context and delivers another vampire tale in a genre that should be in the death throes of its current pop culture transmutation. Depp and Burton may have fulfilled a personal fantasy bringing Dark Shadows to the screen, but it left me hoping that this debacle might drive a final stake into their worn-out partnership.