I didn’t know “Dark Shadows” was based on a soap opera until my friend amusingly explained this: “It was this kind of boring soap opera that no one watched until one season they introduced a vampire to the show and everyone’s minds just exploded.”
The problem then with Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows” is its inability to just make my mind explode.
Burton has always been a unique director. It’s possible that none of his films can be strictly classified into one genre, and “Dark Shadows” is no different. This one begins on a note of period piece horror fantasy with scents of the original “Dracula” in the film’s gorgeous CGI iconography.
This opening takes place in 1772 with the Collins family establishing a thriving colony on the American coastline. The son Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) is cursed by the witch Angelique (Eva Green) when he gives up her for his true love, Josette (Bella Heathcote). Angelique turns Barnabas into a vampire and imprisons him for 200 years, only to wake up in the swinging 1970s. Now Barnabas returns to his surviving ancestors and fights to rebuild the family business, taking down Angelique, also now two centuries old and running strong, in the process.
The fish-out-of-water game is old-hat no matter what setting or mythical creature you put into the formula, and although Depp revels in manipulating everything with an elegantly antiquated misunderstanding of modern technology, slang and etiquette, Burton never knows how to own any of these jokes.
The film and its dialogue constantly teeter on understated comedy and a haunted house ghost movie without ever dipping into campy, absurd or soapy territory. Burton will instead play an Alice Cooper song or some other ‘70s rock staple to suggest the change of tone, and the film never has go for broke laughs or campy charm.
Is it possible that these actors are just too good to ham up this material? “Dark Shadows” has about a dozen subplots that would befit a season’s worth of daytime TV, and yet it never delves into any of them or make us care. Helena Bonham Carter plays a psychologist who is experimenting on Barnabas and is likewise having an affair with him right under the nose of Barnabas’s new true love, the governess Victoria Winters (also played by Bella Heathcote). Jonny Lee Miller is the current head of the Collins household, and he’s caught sleeping around, stealing from the family until he eventually abandons his child.
This is steamy stuff! But these characters and stories are quickly forgotten. The focus is on a CGI showdown between the Collins family and Angelique, and it says to me that Burton no longer has any clue how to direct an ending. In soap opera fashion, I would’ve preferred a string of increasingly insane and melodramatic twists and confessionals.
Where are the catfights? The backstabbing? The surprise cameos? Alice Cooper does show up briefly, but he doesn’t have much to do except provide Depp with a punch line. The end is boring and a mess. It has no truly compelling sex or romance. It merely stays creepy and does nothing to make you scream in horror or in shock.
The one exception here is Chloe Moretz. There’s an early scene where she swivels in a hanging, egg-shaped wicker chair, slowly struts to the door and gives a flick of her hair and pouts her lips in sexy defiance to the pale governess her mother has just hired. Moretz, only 15, has the sultry wit and movie star presence of an actress well beyond her age.
She’s the only one who seems to know she’s in a soap opera. Everyone else is just in a Tim Burton movie.
2 ½ stars