Dark Shadows proves it’s about time he retired and took up a hobby. I’d suggest still photography. He’d be terrific at that—he still has a great eye for his personal fetishes, like unearthly pale, beautiful girls with huge eyes and small mouths, and ornately dressed male fops with crazy hair, and campy Olde Worlde architectural flourishes. Dark Shadows works far better as a bunch of still photos than it does as a movie. Trust me on this. Just look at the pictures below, and don’t go to the movie—there, I just saved you $10. Don’t say I never gave you nuthin.
Burton can’t seem to make movies move anymore. He’s lost his rhythm, his drive, his mojo, whatever you call it. He’s probably just too rich and fat and feted and sated by this time; his films tend to have a sluggish, distracted quality now, with occasional little galvanic fits and starts that die out almost immediately. I mean, why make a movie, which is an awful lot of concentrated work, when you can go home and sit on your bags of money and eat eclairs and read your Edgar Allan Poe first editions or whatever the hell Burton does in his free time?
It’s too bad, because a lot of people, including me, had real hopes for this film. Adapting the old cult-favorite TV show Dark Shadows seemed right up Burton’s street. He and Johnny Depp, Burton’s favorite star, were both devoted viewers of the show during its run from 1966 – ’71, as they told every interviewer who asked.
And maybe that’s part of the problem. Adapting Dark Shadows puts Burton right back into the same kind of material he’s been doing since the late 1980s, and he doesn’t seem to have any fresh ideas about it.
Remember the family home in Beetlejuice, with the weird modern humans co-existing with the somewhat weirder supernatural beings who at first seem dangerous but ultimately prove to be more wholesome and beneficent than the humans? That’s all here again in Dark Shadows, along with the staircase bannister that turns into a giant snake. Remember Ed Wood, when Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi taught Johnny Depp as Ed Wood how to make Dracula’s hypnotic hand movements? Depp, as Barnabas Collins, demonstrates how well he learned the lesson in Dark Shadows. Remember the dank desaturated prologue to Sweeney Todd, showing how Depp’s title character got so grim and tortured and white-faced? We get a do-over here. Plus here are the autumnal landscapes of Sleepy Hollow, and the tribute to Michael Jackson’s profoundly alienated style sense from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory…
So what, you may say. That’s pure routine for auteurs, mining the same themes and preoccupations and stylistic tendencies. Sure, sure. That’s great till they get old and feeble and start pointlessly repeating themselves in a senile fashion. Then you take their car keys away from them, so to speak, and don’t let them drive anymore.
Burton’s Dark Shadows is based on a lame, lax script by Seth Grahame-Smith (author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abe Lincoln, Vampire Hunter), which is Problem #1. Maybe there was some wishful thinking that this lameness and laxness would evoke the discombobulated quality of the old soap opera, which was written and performed under absurdly tight time-constraints leading to surreal narrative incoherence, awkward direction, long odd pauses between speeches as actors tried to recall just-memorized dialogue, flubbed lines, stagehands roaming through scenes, etc. But if that was the idea for the movie, it bombed out horribly. You can’t present a slick new big-budget Hollywood spectacular as if it could work like an old low-budget black-and-white TV serial, just by maintaining a single production element, the half-baked script. That merely results in confusion.
And Burton’s Dark Shadows is confusing all right; at least, you find yourself asking “Why?” a lot, because none of it seems to work very well. Why start with that long, solemn prologue showing us how Barnabus Collins got to be a genteel 18th century vampire? Why stick with linear chronology, plodding two hundred years from 1770-ish to 1972 following a rote deathless-love-and-revenge storyline, when one of the most prescient and promising things about the original show was the way it had doors opening to alternate realities and time travel back to older worlds?
Wouldn’t it’ve been much more fun to start the film in decaying mansion with the weird dysfunctional family, the haunted descendants of a once-grand clan who’ve really come down in the world and can’t get over it? Then you’d make some actual use of the whole batch of big-time actors assembled to play the contemporary Collins clan—Michelle Pfeiffer as the steely matriarch Elizabeth Collins, grimly hanging on to what’s left of familial glory, Chloe Grace Moretz as her sullen daughter Carolyn, Jonny Lee Miller as Elizabeth’s no-good brother Roger, Gulliver McGrath as his disturbed son David, and Helena Bonham Carter as David’s live-in, alcoholic psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman—instead of letting them hang around aimlessly the way they do in this film.
Barnabus Collins’ portrait could still be brooding over the fireplace like it is here, a constant reminder of the good old days of aristocratic power and wealth, till one day the doorbell rings and there’s “Uncle” Barnabus, a dead-ringer for the guy in the portrait, come from England to visit his extended family. Only Uncle Barnabus has some weird personal habits like avoiding sunlight and sleeping upside down hanging from the ceiling, and gradually it’s revealed he’s a vampire and then it’s flashback time, just open a door and plunge into his dark past.
That way you’d also make sense of the elaborate production-designed mansion with all its secret doors and rooms and passageways, which are shown to us in an early scene of the film in such loving detail, it’s like a bizarre real estate presentation to a prospective buyer. But then nothing ever comes of it. There’s some old family treasure in one underground room, including sacks of money, but that’s about it. No reason, then, to have Johnny Depp as Barnabas stroking the woodwork and revealing all the hidden levers that open doors, if opening doors doesn’t get us anywhere.
But it’s no use positing alternate realities for our movie, we’re stuck with this one. It starts ponderously with 18th century Barnabus turned into a vampire, and his great love, the ethereally pretty Josette (Bella Heathcote), driven to suicide, by the spurned servant wench Angelique (Eva Green) who inconveniently turns out to be a witch. Then, segue, it’s the early 1970s and a train is headed toward Collinsport and “Nights in White Satin” is playing on the soundtrack, once more driving home the tragic-love theme, as if this film is Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for heaven’s sake, not Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows. The whole thing seems silly, but not in a good way.
On the train is an ethereally pretty girl named Maggie—no, she decides to call herself Victoria for complex reasons we don’t care about that get revealed later—and she’s a dead ringer for Josette. She’s very pale, prim, and proper, with an early-’70s nice-girl flip hairdo like Mary Tyler Moore used to wear, and she doesn’t fit in at all with the hippies in the groovy ’70s van who give her a lift to Collinwood.
She’s going there to be a governess to David, a storyline that peters out almost immediately, so you can’t imagine why they bothered with the elaborate set-up; why not just have her in the house, working there already, when vampire-Barnabus shows up? He’s got to meet his modern clan anyway, we don’t need her to act as stand-in for the audience while we get introduced to the characters. Oh, the whole thing’s a mess.
Critics who like this movie are really finding the early ’70s stuff fantastically entertaining all by itself. Lava lamps, beanbag chairs, troll dolls, hippies, Iggy Pop, The Carpenters, elaborate hairdos and false eyelashes, all that nostalgia stuff. Eh, sorry, I just couldn’t get into it. So here’s Andrew O’Hehir of Salon to explain why it’s so great:
As the door to Collinwood creaks open revealing the idiot caretaker (Jackie Earle Haley, who is priceless), we glimpse a powerful, almost Proustian totem leaning against the front porch: A Schwinn kids’ bicycle, with a banana seat. I had already suspected I was going to love “Dark Shadows,” even before that moment. But that’s when I knew it for sure….
That Schwinn bike outside Collinwood is a good way of explaining the delicate balance Burton and Grahame-Smith try to strike here. This “Dark Shadows” seeks to be just as melodramatic and claustrophobic and ridiculous as Dan Curtis’ original series — which only introduced its supernatural elements out of desperation, in an effort to raise abysmal ratings — but not exactly in the same way. Yes, the self-aware camp factor has been turned way up, and that will no doubt displease some original fans. When Depp’s Barnabas, an 18th-century gentleman vampire, is first loosed from his 200-year imprisonment by a road construction crew, he marvels at the towering luminescence above him, clearly the work of Mephistopheles (the golden arches of a McDonald’s). Later, upon glimpsing Karen Carpenter on TV, he is disturbed and beguiled: “What sorcery is this? Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!” Curtis’ show certainly never contained internal gags of that sort, but from the audience point of view, it was a camp object even at the time; its goodness and badness and creepiness and sex appeal were always intertwined and inextricable….
Many of us unlucky enough to be conscious during the 1970s were desperate for markers of cultural difference, and “Dark Shadows” offered a big one in the years before punk rock. If you were into that show, you probably listened to records by Alice Cooper and the Rolling Stones and the Velvet Underground. You read Tolkien, and Harlan Ellison. You also watched “Star Trek,” an extremely different kind of show with some odd similarities. (Each became more popular after their cancellation; each starred a Canadian Shakespeare actor — William Shatner and Jonathan Frid, respectively — who took a low-paying TV gig that would define the rest of his life.) You probably knew the guy in your town who sold Acapulco Gold and Panama Red….
Okay, at least that’s an argument for the movie’s nostalgic appeal. But I didn’t revel in any of that, myself, or see any “delicate balance” in operation. That McDonald’s gag was as uninspired as most of the others. Jackie Earle Haley didn’t seem “priceless” to me as the caretaker, and there are few people in the world who could love Jackie Earle Haley as much as I do, or be more inclined to root for him. To me, he seemed stranded in his underwritten role as a drunken reprobate; none of his lines were funny, though they were clearly occurring at points where the funny lines were supposed to go. And I was merely irritated when Alice Cooper showed up as the entertainer at the Collinwood ball organized by Barnabas. (“That is the ugliest woman I have ever seen in my life.”) Nothing comes of that, either—Cooper just performs a few of his golden oldies, and is presumably CGIed to look more like his younger self—but it’s not particularly amusing, or interesting, or anything.
By that point, late in the film, you’re resigned to a listless presentation of elements that seem vaguely meant to evoke the old Burton humor and humane sweetness, his once-insightful combo of the suburban and the supernatural. It’s painful to see it all lie inert up there on the screen, stuff which was so hilarious and wonderful in Beetlejuice and Ed Wood, his best films. And Burton’s got plans to go right on re-animating his old creatures: at the Dark Shadows screening, I saw the preview for a feature-length version of Frankenweenie, Burton’s celebrated pre-fame short film, and I read recently that some studio is in talks with Burton and Michael Keaton to do a sequel to Beetlejuice.
Skip the retirement idea—somebody stick an icepick in Tim Burton, so he really will be done.
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