“You’ll have to imagine us on a better day”
At present, the Tim Burton discussion can be answered in two ways. One: I’ve become too old and jaded to ‘get’ the farcical nature of the auteur’s darkly comic worlds anymore. The satiric tongue-in-cheek tonality he so brilliantly cultivated in grotesque-lite universes either doesn’t have the same effect on me that it did in my youth or just isn’t as good. In that vein comes number Two: Burton has lost a step and now languishes in a perpetual self-parody desperately trying to relive the glory days of old but finding himself unable. His new work all bears resemblance to contemporary classics Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, but none have been able to break free from comparison and truly stand on their own besides the fantastic Big Fish.
His current adaptation of late-60s gothic soap opera “Dark Shadows” falls prey to this unfortunate reality. Moments make you nostalgic for the early years of a now expansive oeuvre and the bright daytime palettes contrasting night’s harsh darkness serve perfectly as the director’s visual calling card. But the distillation by storywriters John August and Seth Grahame-Smith can’t do the style justice. There is too much happening when the simple fish-out-of-water rebirth of a vampire thrust forward in time two hundred years to the psychedelic 70s would have been enough. A plethora of characters are introduced with little relevance to the plot and only convolute what should be the completion of a centuries old grudge between the beloved Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) and the servant witch he scorned, Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green).
Dark Shadows would have been better served sticking to this conceit without attempting to branch out along threads the television show had five years to flesh out. If Burton was really interested in telling the tale of the Collins family’s financial woes, crumbling fishing empire, and their curse of supernatural impurities, he could have easily made it into the ensemble piece the cast makes you believe it might be. But right from the start—and the trailers—we are made aware this is not the case. The film contains Depp as its star, allowing him to take over the spotlight and for all intents and purposes be onscreen for the duration. His performance is quite possibly the best part with an old English flair juxtaposed against the era of free love, but it can’t help push the rest to the fringes.
A brief but effective prologue sets the stage for Angelique’s love of Barnabas and her cursing him undead for wanting another, making everything following his path towards vengeance. The other family members become pawns to these ends with problems of their own glossed over quickly before we realize they ever existed. We don’t care about troubled David (Gulliver McGrath); his widowered, philandering father Roger (Jonny Lee Miller); rebellious teen Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz); or her mother and Collins matriarch Elizabeth Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) because we aren’t given the chance. Even Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), the woman supposedly tasked to save them from the psychological torment of a checkered history in death becomes little more than a red herring, each intriguing backstory neutered so Barnabas can garner our attention without opposition.
And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing—Dark Shadows can be about the iconic vampire alone with the alluded to future installments fleshing out the rest. Don’t lazily bring David’s ghostly mother or Carolyn’s secretive affliction out to play so the plotting can be easier to write. Be more creative than using major character development in trite ways when their discovery could be more thrilling if given the breathing room they deserve. It’s a disservice to all involved and really puts a wrench in the pacing with so many starts and stops that go nowhere, taking us away from the main conflict we should be focused on because Angelique versus Barnabas is actually a hoot to watch. Green may play it too broadly, but the comically destructive dynamic between them is a lot of fun.
Unfortunately, that fun also leaves the true love story an afterthought despite young Victoria Winters’ (Bella Heathcote) arrival to Collinsport being the first step towards Barnabas’ escape from prison. A doppelganger of the love he lost due to Angelique’s jealousy, the courtship of their characters is clumsy at best. Little time is devoted to their budding love and when it is, each instance screams plotting afterthought so the supernatural battle raging has purpose. Heathcote is sweetly innocent in the role and I wish she could interact with her out-of-time suitor more. It’s a genuine performance countering the artificial ones surrounding her—Moretz too falsely brooding, Miller’s sleaze stilted, and Pfeiffer’s secrets switching from dark to comic for cheap laughs—and was a perfect complement to Depp’s apologetic vampire trying to put family first like his father taught.
Thankfully, Jackie Earle Haley‘s Willie Loomis keeps a light tone of sarcastically indifferent humor intact and the fights between Green and Depp do outlandishly excite. The aesthetic tries hard to recall Burton of old with spectacular effects—the ceramic cracking of Green’s skin a brilliant piece of computer work—but the quip-filled script can’t quite keep up. Perhaps Grahame-Smith is too used to infusing his voice in already existing plots (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) that he wasn’t up to the task of starting from scratch. The soundtrack does help bring the 70s to life, though, with The Moody Blues‘ gorgeous “Nights in White Satin” playing above the opening credits and The Carpenters and Alice Cooper arriving later. This, retro cereal boxes, and the ‘pulsating blood urn’ of a lava lamp transported me back, but the story sadly couldn’t get me below the surface.
 JOHNNY DEPP as Barnabas Collins in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ “DARK SHADOWS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
 EVA GREEN as Angelique Bouchard in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ “DARK SHADOWS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
 (L-r) GULLY McGRATH as David Collins, JONNY LEE MILLER as Roger Collins, MICHELLE PFEIFFER as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, and CHLOË GRACE MORETZ as Carolyn Stoddard in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ “DARK SHADOWS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Peter Mountain