“Dark Shadows” is not the worst movie that Tim Burton has ever made, but that’s only because there’s nothing worse than “Alice in Wonderland.” A desperate jumble of ideas in search of deeper substance, much less focus, Burton’s latest collaboration with actor Johnny Depp is the latest, and perhaps greatest, proof that yet exists for the director: he’s a hell of a production designer. Given the film’s incredible lack of cohesion – or follow-through – it feels like the resigned end result of a studio’s best efforts to whittle an unwieldly mess into something manageable, but far too many of its shortcomings remain exposed for it to play as anything other than a showcase for the star and filmmaker’s laziness, hubris, or both.
Depp plays Barnabas Collins, a wealthy New England landowner condemned to eternal torment as a vampire after he rebuffs the attentions of a chambermaid named Angelique (Eva Green) who dallies in witchcraft. After watching his beloved fiancée Josette (Bella Heathcote) hurl herself off a cliff, Barnabas allows himself to be buried by the local townspeople, but 200 years later he’s unceremoniously exhumed, his thirst for blood more intense than ever. Returning to his family’s estate, Barnabas soon discovers that his descendants have left his fortunes in disarray. As frantically as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) tries to keep the Collinses together, her brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller) neglects his son David (Gulliver McGrath) and indulges in some proper 1970s-style hedonism instead of dealing with the death of his wife, even as her rebellious daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz) holes up in her room, dreaming of a different kind of escape.
Retrieving a few treasures from a secret hideaway in the recesses of the family mansion, Barnabas vows to restore the Collinses to their former glory. But his plan is interrupted first when he’s overpowered by the resemblance between his beloved Josette and David’s young nanny Victoria (Heathcote again), and then again when he realizes that Angelique is very much alive, has turned herself into the town’s favorite citizen, and still holds a grudge against him.
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Precisely how bad “Dark Shadows” is is not immediately apparent: the opening flashback, and the introduction of Victoria both hold as much promise as they do perfunctory exposition. But even with Depp doing marginally more work than he does as Jack Sparrow – albeit indulging all of the same weirdo-cartoon muscles – there isn’t much reason to care for Barnabas, even after his lover commits suicide and he’s sentence to an eternity as a vampire. Worse, the other introductory idea, that Victoria is somehow connected to his fiancée (reincarnated? Reborn? Inhabiting the body of the young woman?) is vaguely promoted then dropped almost altogether, as Victoria is seen only about two more times in the film before she and Barnabas declare deep, meaningful feelings for one another. (Not to mention the fact that she’s supposed to be David’s nanny, and there literally is not one single scene where she is caring for him.)
Other than the weird, aggressively sexual relationship that Barnabas has with Angelique – including a gymnastic fling the two have in which they slam into walls, fly in the air and destroy her corporate office – there seems to be no other significant throughline for any of the action, although the word “family” is repeated often. But “family” is not a story, and neither is a cranked-to-eleven soundtrack which features an indefatigable string of 1970s pop songs that dominate and eventually overshadow whatever might possibly be going on in the narrative. The movie is just disastrously disorganized – there are so many false starts and burnoff endings that have no bearing on the actual beginning, middle and end of what might even generously be described as a plot that it’s difficult to imagine what Burton and his actors believed they were making, or what their motivation might have been from one scene to the next.
Speaking of the actors, only Eva Green seems to be relishing the glistening awfulness of her character within the confines of an abominable story – which really only makes sense because hers is the only character whose motivations and behavior are clear and explained. Depp furtively attempts to find the humor in Barnabas’ combination of anachronistic self-importance and romantic earnestness, but he’s overpowered by the soundtrack, and the lack of any counterbalance by anyone else in the production, Burton included. Pfeiffer does her best, as does Miller, but Moretz makes a dubious accomplishment in giving her first truly awful performance, although I’d give her the benefit of the doubt that there is footage on a cutting room floor which indicates she had more to do, and did more with what she had. As it stands, however, there are few more excruciating moments in the movie than the reaction shots of her staring at the camera in close-up with slack-jawed sneer as she listens to Barnabas’ requests for romantic advice.
Heathcote is really likeable and smart in the role of Victoria, but again, she’s given so little screen time to develop the role that after a dynamite introduction scene, she vanishes and communicates all of the important feelings and stuff via bland exposition or not at all (because it’s not in the movie). It’s fairly unforgivable for a character as seemingly important as hers to have so little screen time, much less so little explanation or exploration of her behavior. The mythology of the movie further confuses her identity and her importance – what relation does she have to Josette? – so that at the end we’re not quite sure how many tragedies have piled upon one another for things to work out the way they do.
Depressingly, there are few things I’d like to see more than a good Tim Burton movie – I’ve been a huge fan of his since Large Marge scared the living hell out of me in 1985 – but this kind of crap is just sort of unredeemable, because there’s no reason why a filmmaker of his stature and his authority could or should be making movies this shoddily assembled and unengaging. For viewers as much as for him, it’s literally impossible to imagine what the point of it might have initially been to undertake this, and then what in it ever could or would have gotten audiences excited about it. Who gives a shit about “Dark Shadows”? Respectfully, nobody who wants to see it brought to the big screen via a post-“Alice in Wonderland” Tim Burton and a post- “Pirates of the Caribbean 4” Johnny Depp. In fact, now that I think about it, maybe this is worse than “Alice in Wonderland.”
But even if it isn’t, there’s nothing better to do with this movie than to damn it with precisely that sort of faint praise, and then hope it disappears quickly from screens. Because “Dark Shadows” is, at its absolute best, an awful movie, an unfocused mess, and a top-notch piece of production and costume design in search of a story. Maybe it’s still lurking somewhere in those shadows, but for my money, no more light need be shone on this kind of grim display. [D]