‘Dark Shadows’ fails to correct Tim Burton’s trajectory

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Dark Shadows
Written by Seth Grahame-Smith
Directed by Tim Burton
USA, 2012

Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, based on the late-1960s cult soap opera, suffers badly from wanting it both ways. One half wants to be Gothic horror centered on a doomed love triangle; the other half wants to be a glib, deadpan comedy set during the Vietnam War. Though combining horror and comedy can yield great results, Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (John August is credited with co-writing the story) never achieve that balance. Instead, they force a mostly able cast to bring a group of barely one-dimensional character sketches to life.

Johnny Depp, dressed as a combination of Michael Jackson and a Japanese horror-film villain, plays Barnabas Collins, whose father established a Maine fishing town called Collinsport in the 1700s thanks to his vast wealth. However, after Barnabas spurned a servant girl/witch named Angelique, she placed a curse on the Collins family, turning Barnabas into a vampire and burying him alive. Cut to 1972: Collinsport thrives because of the Angel Bay fishing company, owned by a beloved woman who looks exactly like Angelique. The remaining Collins family members—matriarch Elizabeth, rebellious daughter Caroline, shifty uncle Roger, and his forlorn son, David—as well as the drunken groundskeeper and a shallow psychiatrist, however, live aimlessly in the worn-down Collinwood Manor, until Barnabas returns after his coffin is unearthed, wishing to remove Angelique’s curse for good, but stymied by how the world has changed over nearly two centuries.

The often sly humor, along with the cast’s glee at playing in a faux-70s environment, is the film’s saving grace. It’s not present in the pre-credits sequence, where Barnabas narrates a rapid-fire volley of exposition of his life up to being buried alive. The prologue commits the most basic of creative-writing sins: telling, not showing. We’re told of Barnabas’ love for a woman named Josette, who leaps to her death while under Angelique’s spell. We’re told Barnabas was loathed by the townsfolk after Angelique convinced them of his wrongdoing. Though we get quick shots of exactly those moments, that’s all we get: quick shots. A longer version of this prologue could have made Barnabas’ struggle more compelling, less distant.

This film’s problems may not have been erased had it been 150, not 113, minutes long, but an extended length may have solved its most persistent issue: poor character development. This movie has an abundance of people, but only a few get frequent and consistent screen time: Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer as Elizabeth, and Eva Green as Angelique. Other performers, such as Chloe Grace Moretz as Caroline, Jonny Lee Miller as Roger, Helena Bonham Carter as the psychiatrist, and Jackie Earle Haley as the groundskeeper, do their best to make an impact, but are given woefully sparse material to dig into.

A criticism that’s often levied at Tim Burton is that he’s more interested in set design than in telling a good story. With Dark Shadows, it’s not hard to see the logic of that slam. Burton is fascinated in bedecking Depp, the other actors, and Collinsport in 70s-era kitsch, not in showing us why the TV series was important to him or worth retelling. From lava lamps to the soundtrack to hippies-as-humor, this movie’s only missing an Afro and a pair of bell bottoms to remind us that, yes, it’s set in the 1970s, and isn’t that hilarious?

Though the costumes, by Colleen Atwood, and production design, by Rick Heinrichs, are impressive, focusing on accurately depicting 1972 means Burton and Grahame-Smith avoid developing the people living in this facsimile. The conflict between Barnabas and Angelique is most fully formed, but still feels threadbare. If she can’t have him, she wants to destroy him, but we don’t know why he never wants her. In the prologue, during a moment of passion, she encourages him to profess his love. When he refuses, she chooses revenge, but why does he refuse? No idea. Another subplot involves the reincarnation of Josette returning to Collinwood Manor to be David’s governess, and falling in love again with Barnabas. Burton and Grahame-Smith could’ve mined melodrama here—Bella Heathcote is adequate in her short time on screen—but scarcely provide a vague sketch for the romance.

Based on his early work, Tim Burton is beloved by many, but he doesn’t understand where the goodwill comes from. While his once-singularly quirky style made him stand out, his earnestly sentimental streak in Edward Scissorhands and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure endeared him to audiences. The originality of those films, along with his unique vision for Batman and Beetlejuice, helped make him a cult figure in mainstream filmmaking, an outsider who managed to make good. Since then, he’s toyed with similar visual tricks, mostly making striking-looking but hollow, impersonal movies. Dark Shadows the TV series may have been a nostalgic touchstone for Tim Burton and Johnny Depp as children, like Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were, but Dark Shadows the film adaptation is just mildly entertaining, striking on the surface and empty on the inside. Burton knows the notes, but no longer knows the music.

Josh Spiegel

3 Comments
  1. PB210 says

    Odd thing about these spoofy versions of TV shows-feature film versions of TV sitcoms have generally not done that great it seems, other than, close to this subject’s post, The Addams Family. Of course, Mr. Mesce may have a contrary list.

    http://www.ducksoftware.com/movies/tvsitcom.html

    Based on this films and Mars Attacks, Burton does not seem among the group who saw his 1989 film as “Gee that was a TV show that made fun of Batman and made fun of comic books, so we have to show people that Batman and comic books are serious”.

  2. Josh Spiegel says

    I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked by that, though I think that there is a story that could’ve been told here. The problem is that there are many stories that could be told here–not surprising since the film is based on a soap opera. Burton just doesn’t know how to tell a complete story. Or he doesn’t care. Neither option is palatable.

  3. Bill Mesce says

    I remember Burton admitting in an interview — I think this was after BEETLEJUICE, possibly — that he wasn’t that good at story. He’s been at his best when his extreme visual sense has either been harnessed to a strong story (EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, BATMAN), or allowed to run riot in a story that thrived on chaos and silliness (BEETLEJUICE, PEE WEE). Too many of his films have fallen between those poles and they often feel like a look in search of a story to tell.

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