Lifeless, by Josh Long
Whatever happened to Tim Burton? Many of us can still remember the glory days of Batman, Beetlejuice and Ed Wood, but the filmmaker who brought us these gems seems nowhere to be found. Twenty years ago I may have been excited to see a Burton-ized Alice in Wonderland, but the 2010 film had none of the spooky charm of which the filmmaker was once capable. Over time, it seems like Burton may have stopped seeking good scripts, and started seeking “trippy” or “goth-esque” existing properties that he could re-imagine. The latest in this line of remixes is Dark Shadows.
Based on the long-running TV series of the same name, Dark Shadows follows the triumphs and tragedies of the Collins family, a wealthy dynasty in New England. The family is surrounded by supernatural ghoulish occurrences; witches, ghosts, werewolves and vampires all play roles in the family’s story. The film focuses strongly (to a fault) on Barnabas Collins, played by Johnny Depp. Barnabus is a vampire, locked in a coffin for 200 years, who finally escapes and vows to help regain his family’s former wealth and prestige.
This film is most frustrating in its waste of potential. The TV series was known for being campy, and Burton knows how to direct camp. Elements of Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood see him doing it beautifully. But Dark Shadows can’t decide how to play this up, or whether to do it at all. At moments it grasps at the inherent soap opera melodrama of the source material, but rarely commits. We have some fantastic actors, a mysterious cast of characters, and Burton’s trademark art direction, which should be enough to give us a good movie. And yet it’s not in here.
There is a sense that the director is torn between making this movie a comedy or a gothic melodrama. It seems to aim for both, and as such fails at both. We can forgive the melodrama if it’s accented and campy, but when there are so many moments played for silly laughs, it doesn’t mix. Besides, there are opportunities for clever jokes that instead are far overdone. The worst of these are the constant jokes about Barnabas’ re-integration into 1970s America. He’s been asleep for 200 years, so every new invention or turn of phrase becomes an opportunity for gags. Slight elements of this here and there would be funny, but far too much time is devoted to these Blast from the Past type jokes.
Even worse, since so much time is spent watching Johnny Depp as a vampire adjusting to the Nixon era, we get no time to learn anything about the other characters. The members of the contemporary Collins household (played by Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Lee Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, and Helena Bonham Carter, among others) get little to no backstory, motivation or resolution. We’re introduced to them through the eyes of a new governess (Bella Heathcote) who gets slight hints at the family’s weird history, but as soon as Barnabas shows up, all that is thrown aside to watch him cavort through scenes of 70s nostalgia.
The scenery and costumes are fantastic, as always, but the story doesn’t hold up to the same standard. I would almost rather see a film with no discernible story, if the point is going to be the visuals. The Fountain is a beautiful movie to watch, even if it doesn’t make any sense. But since so much time is spent on developing a stale script in a stodgy three-act Hollywood structure, it distracts from the good elements of the film. Instead of having a story that fits hand-in-hand with the ornate gothic setting, we get a weak skeleton of a script, meant to go along with much more interesting (wasted) elements. It’s a constant reminder that instead of using its potential, the movie is trying to be something else, and failing at that.
Dark Shadows has some well done spooky visuals and occasional genuine laughs, but as a whole, it doesn’t seem to know what it’s trying to deliver its audiences. And it’s most frustrating because it shouldn’t have to be this way. The pieces are all there, but the director of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory needs the director of Edward Scissorhands to show him how to put them together.