Movies: Can Depp and Burton Recapture Old Magic with ‘Dark Shadows’?

Tim Burton has never been great  at "story" anyway and Dark Shadows is no exception. The plot is overly complicated and enormously repetitive, boiling down to this: the evil witch Angelique (Eva Green) and her ex-lover the vampire Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) have been at odds since the 1700s. Centuries later they still lust-hate each other and battle for the soul (and fishing profits) of the village known as Collinswood in the 1970s. As weird as it may be to say, "In the 1970s" is the important part of that sentence. Burton hasn't cared much about storytelling since the 90s when he made his two best films (Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood). As a director he's always relied on his own peculiar aesthetic as the movie. His gothic cutesiness has grown so successful it's now a calcified brand which he can transport with ease (and a hundred million plus budget) to just about any property for a Burtonesque remake. 

So the real question with each new movie is whether he's throwing a good ball or "happening". The answer changes from scene to scene.  

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Burton can still deliver a great visual hook as he does here with a recurring ghostly reenactment of a woman's hypnotic "suicide". These visitations are beautiful and haunting but the film's climax would play far more impactfully if we had pieced the details together for ourselves and felt the tragedy with an engaging "a ha". He can also still deliver whimsical comedy as in one fine bit when Barnabas' self-pitying dramatics actually cause the scene's chintzy musical accompaniment.  But even in the film's best moments there's a certain clumsiness in the play and inertia in the pacing as if Burton is caught between his new laziness and his old genuine excitement about his chosen material. Is it a comedy, a tragedy, a melodrama, or a horror film? Burton doesn't know so the actors try to hit all the targets with entertaining but mixed results. Helena Bonham-Carter and Johnny Depp "get" Tim Burton (as well they should) but their elaborate characterizations feel more effortful and less funny than the movie needs. Even the gloriously welcome Michelle Pfeiffer (come back to the movies full time anytime, diva), moves with a certain careful stiffness through her regal, funny and winning big screen return as the Collins matriarch. Chloe Moretz fares worst with the one note role of the sullen teenager. Two years into her ubiquitous teen stardom she's still burdened by her youth, all pose and no deeper feeling. That's fatal in a Burton film where deeper feeling is the only thing that will differentiate you from the elaborate human statuary just out of focus behind you.

Dark-witchOnly Eva Green, who also played a witch in The Golden Compass, moves through the gorgeously gothic set and preening 70s affectations with the freeness of inspiration. She's all quick spins, rump slides, and bosomy pride as unwaveringly sure that she owns the movie as Angelique is that she owns the town. Her freakish rictus grin is the perfect cap on the star turn: comedy, tragedy, melodrama and horror all at once. Green also earns the movie's best and most inventive visual effect, her skin-deep beauty cracking like the shell of a hard boiled egg…without the egg inside. She's never been human enough.

In the end Dark Shadows doesn't cast any of its own. Its mild successes and failures shine no bright light on the director's future (even though the final image is all "Can I be your sequel, please?") If Burton continues to make movies as terrible as Planet of the Apes and Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows will be a minor uptick in his creative downslide.  If his imagination finds a second wind or purpose, Dark Shadows might well be remembered warmly as a turning point… the moment he stumbled back toward the light.

 

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Catwoman and Burton finally reunited.

Nathaniel Rogers would live in the movie theater but for the poor internet reception. He blogs daily at the Film Experience. Follow him on Twitter @nathanielr.

Comments

  1. Bobby says

    I loved it. The scene where Barnabas is lusting after the lava lamp made me laugh hysterically. I understand the movie might not be for everyone, but for DARK SHADOWS fans like me and the vampires in general, the movie was FUN.

    Oh, I loved THE AVENGERS too. Saw it twice already.

  2. RandyRand says

    My partner and I went to see Dark Shadows yesterday. Very disappointed in the movie. I actually dozed off twice. It lags and doesn’t seem to go anywhere. It could have been a great campy comedy but didn’t quite make it. I love Johnny Depp and Tim Burton but as far as this film goes it was a big disappointment for the both of us. There was a decent sized audience and no one seemed impressed, not much laughter. I also heard others commenting on how they expected more and somehow felt cheated.

  3. David Ciminello says

    Johnny Depp great. Movie BAD. The first third is inspired but once Eva Green’s character enters the picture it takes a severe tumble from which it never recovers. An overblown fun house ride that makes NO sense. Horrible writing. Gaudy special effects. Screenwriting DOES take talent — Seth Graham Smith has none. And Tim Burton (a gifted visual artist if there ever was one) wouldn’t know a good story if it hit him on his straight head. Dr. Hoffman giving Barnabas a blow job? Really? Study plot and character Tim. Get rid of the bad frat boy joke mentality and commercial pandering. Your talent and Dark Shadows deserve better.

  4. Artamus says

    The real reason Burton’s opening of Dark Shadows got staked at the box office by Whedon’s The Avengers in it’s second week is simple:

    Joss Whedon showed total respect, put his ego on hold, and made The Avengers ABOUT The Avengers. That greatly pleased the core base of fans who love the original Comics – now they all want to see it multiple times, and they will highly recommend it to their Friends and Families.

    On the other hand, Tim Burton made HIS Dark Shadows ALL about Tim Burton’s ego, draped with just enough window dressing to insult the fans of the real Dark Shadows by reminding them how much better the original Series is.

    I hope the Green-lighters in Hollywood learned something from these two examples of Film making.

  5. R says

    People still get disappointed in Burton films after Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? If Burton can’t turn those movies, with that level of source material, into awesome movies… it’s time to move on. I think the public’s realized that.

    My general rule with Burton is this: the bigger the budget, the worse it will be. And that’s because he’s sold out.

  6. QJ201 says

    I watched the entire series when it was run on the Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy or whatever). I am not running out to see it at all. The “fish out of water” is a tired theme. Haven’t we beaten the 70’s to death yet?

  7. Dearcomrade says

    Absolute drek like Burton’s other recent movies. If Burton & Depp insist on pumping stuff like this out they should open a septic service.

  8. Gary says

    I found it to be a wonderful reboot to a beloved story for those who love this many faceted material. They only scratched the surface and did it quite well. Some surprises which expains Chloe Moretz performance and sullen attitude! Did this guy even watch the whole movie or ever watched the entire series….You need to in able to properly critique this work…Or at least one episode. They are on You Tube:)

  9. Outward projection of one's own elbows says

    Burton really belongs to the art department, and not even as that department’s director. He abuses his own aesthetics.

  10. jaragon says

    I enjoyed the visual richness of the production- specially the Colin’s mansion-Burton almost pulled off the mix of horror and comedy ( Depp was again brilliant) but the everything but the kitchen sink finale was a bit too much fx fireworks. ” The Avengers” lives up to the hype- the ultimate Marvel comic spectacle and plenty of male eye candy between Thor and Captain America.

  11. Molc says

    I enjoyed it. A fun pop movie with some really good visual and verbal gags, not great but much better than the junk that usually clogs the multiplexes.

  12. Bill says

    RIP Jonathan Frid.
    I started watching DARK SHADOWS at 10 in 1967 and am still one of its biggest fans. These are characters that are in my heart. That Burton’s creation sees Barnabas recreated as comical Nosferatu makes me cringe. I have not built up the courage to pay to see characters I love be ridiculed (– Julia gives Barnabas a BJ? — really?!). No Thanks. I’ll wait until it hits Netflix.

  13. says

    Horrible, as I’m guessing most Burton films are. They’re moronic. Scissor Hands, Abe Lincoln Vampire Hunter, and now a comic version of Dark Shadows? They make zero sense.
    This was a job for the make-up department. The tone and the story were insulting to the original material. And Depp’s fake accent is tired. The scary music over whimsical action. Shallow characters. Artificial camera work.
    I’ll never go to another Burton flick, and I want my 11.50 back. I only went to this because it was Dark Shadows. Should have known better.

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