If we were in the business of giving out ‘tl;dr’ versions of our reviews, we’d have this to say about Dark Shadows: yep, all the doubts and fears inspired by the film’s trailer are dead on target.
For the last ten or so years, since the sentimental Big Fish, Tim Burton has been honing his previously odd, gothic-meets-kitsch aesthetic into a rich, pristine gloss, all the while trampling on familiar properties from Sweeney Todd to Willy Wonka. 2010’s Alice In Wonderland was not only Burton’s most expensive, but his most successful film to date, but it found the director, who was once feted as the most distinctive of modern Hollywood visionaries, slipping towards humdrum mundanity.
Here, Burton is once more playing with other people’s creations, but after the family entertainment of Alice and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Dark Shadows, based on the 60s television show, is a shift towards supernatural comedy. Hopeful fans would point to the unhinged Beetlejuice or the madcap mess of Mars Attacks as positive precedents, but Burton, as is becoming sadly apparent with the passing of time, never fails to disappoint.
Johnny Depp leads his fifth Burton flick in a row (and eighth overall) as Barnabas Collins, an 18th-century vampire who, previously cursed and buried alive by a spurned witch (Angelique, played by Eva Green), is exhumed in the 1970s. Returning to his hometown of Collinsport, he finds his beloved mansion in ruin, and his once-reputable family in dysfunctional disarray. As he adjusts to his groovy surroundings, Barnabas resolves to restore the Collins’ fishing business to its former glory. However, a rival company, headed by the ever-youthful witch, stands in his way.
Throughout, self-awareness abounds, as flights of soap operatics and gothic camp are undercut with desperately awful pop-culture gags and straight-faced rejoinders. Whole scenes hinge on Depp’s aghast expression as he saunters through an assault course of recognisable 70s paraphernalia, from Scooby Doo and Troll dolls to Operation and lava lamps. It is culture-clash comedy at its most crass and least imaginative, full of period tunes yet lacking in bite.
There was a time when Burton specialised in characters who were out of step with the world around them, outsiders who, like Pee-wee Herman, Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood, were both defined and enriched by their unconventional qualities. Barnabas, for all his quirks, strives for a conventional life, hoping to become human and marry Victoria (Bella Heathcote), the Collins family’s governess who may just be the reincarnation of his long lost love, Josette. ‘Family,’ he repeats at opportune moments throughout the film, ‘is the only real wealth’. For those seeking evidence that Burton, the goth auteur, has grown up and left his misfits behind, this may be final filmic nail in his cinematic coffin.
What is perplexing is that, as Burton ages, he doesn’t put away the toys of his younger days. Dark Shadows still plays with genre conventions, kooky Americana and a purple-centric production palette, but the director’s mad, inspired expressionism – his enthusiastic melange of everything from B-movie schlock to Charles Addams – has dissipated. Sure, Dark Shadows looks beautiful, as should be expected from its nine-figure budget, but it is a dull spectacle compared to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s work with Jean-Pierre Jeunet on the likes of Amelie and A Very Long Engagement.
As with other recent Burton films, the script is more than partly to blame. Penned by Seth Graham-Smith, author of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the vamp-out-of-water screenplay is a subplot-heavy mess, veering from romance to dopey comedy, before simultaneously falling apart and breaking all of its own rules in pursuit of a cartoonishly action-packed climax.
However, for all its cocked eyebrows and tongue-in-cheekiness, Graham-Smith’s post-modern genre deconstruction only goes so far. In a year that has seen horror tropes so well dissected in The Cabin In The Woods, Dark Shadows – which features a vampire flummoxed by television, and brushing their fangs in a mirror sans reflection – seems rather weak as both comedy and commentary. Likewise, appropriating the patriarchal nightmare of the vengeful, lustful, obsessive witch archetype for the plot’s antagonist makes the flick a little more troubling than it ought to be.
Thankfully, we are graced with a strong cast, featuring Michelle Pfeiffer and Chloe Grace Moretz alongside Depp’s immaculate deadpan and Eva Green’s scenery-chewing fervour, but good performances, slick cinematography and a passable Danny Elfman score do not make a good film, just as constant, tepid riffing does not make a good parody. Indeed, with its repetitive jokes and stale ideas, Dark Shadows rates just below Dracula: Dead And Loving It in the vampire-spoof stakes. And it can sit alongside 2001’s Planet Of The Apes as Burton’s worst.