'Dark Shadows': The Horror of Tim Burton

Today we review the new supernatural comedy Dark Shadows.

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How many good movies has Tim Burton actually made? Cutting past all the reverent, "he's so dark and twisted" hubbub that still inexplicably surrounds him, how many honest to goodness movies of lasting quality has Tim Burton directed? By my count the number is five: The joyously weird kiddie journeyman film Pee Wee's Big Adventure, the wonderfully whacked-out ghost comedy Beetlejuice, of course the melancholy fable Edward Scissorhands (probably his best?), the acute and mature Ed Wood, and Mars Attacks!, an absurd but somehow successful sci-fi spoof. (OK, OK, I know that last one is mostly reviled, so you can throw in Sweeney Todd, for its sinister elegance, as a replacement if you want.) That's it. Five out of some fifteen films. And none (except Sweeney) from the last decade. His movies still earn big bucks (Alice in Wonderland is one of the highest-grossing films of all time) so it's no wonder he still works, but quality-wise, it might be time to throw in the towel with Mr. Burton. The tremendously botched Dark Shadows works to cement that notion.

There are moments in Dark Shadows, based on the beloved camp soap opera of the 1960s, that cruelly hint at a better film that could have been: The opening shot of a foggy, foreboding harbor; a ghostly train twisting north as a creepy old pop tune plays; scenes from a small town that's a perfect seaside Spielberg hamlet, only with a few of the lights knocked out and some extra years' worth of dust accumulated. There's a haunted sadness found in various small pockets of the film, places where Burton has secreted away the mournful aspects of nostalgia so they won't get tromped on by all the big, dumb jokes dominating the film. I suspect that Burton and his leading man/muse Johnny Depp hold a genuine fondness for the original series, that their intentions in bringing this thing back to life were earnest and good enough. But I fear they've been mired in the big studio system for so long that they've lost their way, they're out of touch with themselves. They're giants who don't know their own strength — they tried to pick up this old thing they both loved and show it to us, but they smashed and smooshed it in the process.

The story concerns one Barnabas Collins, the morose but passionate son of a wealthy Maine fishing magnate who, after refusing to requite a witch's love, is turned into a vampire (by said witch) and buried in a coffin for nearly 200 years. When he is dug up we are in 1972, that faded time of chunky plastic furniture and shag carpets and other mundane horrors. Forty years past now, the era is ripe for the lingering gaze of nostalgia. But aside from a few nice, brief moments of detail, Burton renders the time period irrelevant. It really doesn't matter that Dark Shadows is set in any particular time, the chosen one seems almost arbitrary; we're in 1972 because it's similar to the time period of the show, and because that is when Burton was himself a young teenager. We tend to hold whatever time period it was when we were fourteen above all others, don't we?

Anyway, accidentally resurrected, Barnabas returns to his family manor, Collinwood, only to find it rundown and neglected, its current tenants distant relatives who've mostly gone to seed. There's Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (an underused Michelle Pfeiffer), a cold woman with a surly teenage daughter (Chloë Grace Moretz, trying way too hard), and a troubled nephew (Gulliver McGrath). The boy's father (Jonny Lee Miller) is a skirt-chasing deadbeat who's got one foot out the door, and his psychiatrist Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter, droll and delightful as ever) is a stumbling drunk who's been living in Collinwood for five years and still hasn't made any progress. (The boy insists he can talk to the ghost of his mother, who was lost at sea. Do you believe him??) Rounding out the group are dumb groundskeeper Willie (Jackie Earle Haley — and yes he really is a groundskeeper named Willie) and the mysterious new nanny Victoria (Bella Heathcoate) who has obvious ulterior motives for showing up at Collinwood. (That she looks a whole heck of a lot like Barnabas' long lost love might have something to do with that.) So it's a shabby group, and Barnabas, while as polite as the custom of his time demands, is dismayed to find the noble Collins name in such ruins. So, in montage fashion, he goes about restoring the house and the family fishing business, which has been completely overshadowed by a rival company started by... Angelique the witch (Eva Green)!

Yes, she's still kicking around, and her sexually charged battle with Barnabas is the main driving narrative force of the film. Green was a strange casting choice — she's not exactly a go-to name for comedy, and she proves why consistently throughout the movie. She can certainly do a witchy glare well (and she doesn't even fly in this one!), but her timing is off, she's out of place. She's too brittle or regal to be crawling around in the spoof muck with everybody else. Meanwhile, Depp does good grandiose old-timey Brit stuff — the screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith writes that material with satisfying flourish — but seeing him play some ornate character seems so familiar now, just so much like what he does, that it comes across lazy. The whole film is lazy, from its horrifically shameless McDonald's product placement moment to its sloppy, special effects-laden action finale.

The movie seems to have no idea where it's going most of the time. Bonham Carter's character seems to solely exist for the purpose of drunk jokes and, with grotesque arrogance, to set up for a sequel. The Victoria plotline is ignored for most of the film — everyone's too busy telling extended balls jokes — and then hastily addressed toward the very end. And a last-minute nod to the greater monster world of the television series plays like a glaring afterthought. "Oh, and yeah, there's this too." The filmmaking here is almost gapingly immature, the kind of product you'd expect from a fledgling director, not someone with thirty years of experience and a MoMA retrospective under his belt. I'm not quite sure what sort of jolt Tim Burton needs to get back into his late '80s groove, but something needs to be done before he co-opts yet another beloved old thing and turns it into clunky nonsense like this.

There was rich opportunity here to do something fun: un-winking high camp that's also genuinely scary. But instead Burton and Depp do the old Charlie and the Chocolate Factory shuffle. They threw in a bunch of weird visual asides and anachronistic jokes and hoped those would cover up the fact that they've completely failed to justify the redo. It's ultimate Hollywood self-involvement. Boys, Dark Shadows wasn't just your little curio to fiddle with only to toss aside when you grew bored with it or broke it. This was all of ours, and now you've callously ruined it.

I like the setup of the film. I like the little town it was filmed in. The bones are there. So who knows. Maybe in forty years some plucky director will come along and say "Hey, what's this?" and, in a reversal of fortune, make something wonderful out of it. It could be the start of a brilliant career! Or, as in Burton's case, it could be a false flash of light signaling the beginning of a career spent tragically, surprisingly mostly in the dark.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.