Directed by Tim Burton. Written by Seth Grahame-Smith and John August, based on the TV series created by Dan Curtis. Starring Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Jackie Earle Haley, Jonny Lee Miller, Chloe Grace Moretz, Bella Heathcote, Christopher Lee and Alice Cooper. Running time: 114 minutes. Rated PG-13.
OK, I have to ask, has Johnny Depp given up all aspirations of playing real-life human beings? From his foppish Jack Sparrow to the Mad Hatter to Willy Wonka to Hunter S. Thompson to his upcoming role as Tonto in the Lone Ranger, it seems that the undeniably talented actor has become the go-to guy for cartoonish eccentrics. Say what you will about 2010's uninspiring The Tourist, it was one of those rare sightings of Depp in the guise of anything resembling an ordinary human.
Dark Shadows is the A-list actor's eighth collaboration with director Tim Burton and probably his most pointless. While Alice in Wonderland was no artistic achievement, it, at least, had a vague sense of why it existed (other than box office revenues). No such luck here. While this update of the late '60s, early '70s supernatural soap opera has the kind of costumes and sets you walk out of the theater humming, the plot is an unfocused mess, the direction is indecisive, and the ensemble of Burton regulars is mostly left to fend for themselves.
During a moody and prolonged prologue, Dark Shadows introduces us to Barnabas Collins (Depp), the 18th century heir to a Maine family's fishing empire. Young Barnabas ends a loveless affair with the fetching family maid, Angelique (Eva Green), after falling in love with chaste blueblood Josette DuPres (Bella Heathcote). Unfortunately, Angelique is a very jealous witch who curses Collins' family, murdering everyone he loves, turning him into a vampire, and burying him in a locked coffin for all eternity.
Jump ahead 200 years, and the reluctant bloodsucker is accidentally unearthed by a construction crew. After a frenzied attack, Barnabas shows up at his ancestral home, Collinswood, to meet his 1972 descendents. There's the protective matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her sarcastic daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), her ne'er-do-well brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller) and his troubled young son David (Gulliver McGrath). Helena Bonham Carter is the family's live-in shrink, while Jackie Earle Haley tends to the estate's decaying grounds. Newest to join the clan is Victoria Winters (Heathcote again), the new governess ... and dead ringer for Barnabas' long-lost love.
Determined to re-establish the family's wealth and prominence in the community, 18th century Barnabas contends with the oddities of 20th century culture, relatives undone by misfortune, his romantic feelings for Victoria, and a rival fishing company — headed up by the seemingly ageless Angelique (who still longs to make him hers).
Yes, it's another of Burton's eccentric outsider stories, this time dropped into a fish-out-of-water sitcom style plot. Sort of. The problem is that Dark Shadows can't really figure out what kind of movie it is. There's comedy and campy macabre and gothic melodrama and horror but none of it ever congeals into a story that dramatically, tonally or thematically makes sense. There are an exhausting number of characters and subplots but few go anyplace interesting and none seems to catch the attention or imagination of the film's pedigreed director. Burton not only fails to do anything interesting with most of his cast, he often seems to lose track of them. Actors disappear for long stretches of time — most perplexingly, love interest Victoria — only to pop up at random moments to remind the audience that they were there in the first place. (I defy anyone to explain to me why Jonny Lee Miller is in the movie at all.)
The only relationship that seems to catch Burton's attention is the carnal conflict between Barnabas and Angelique. Green vamps it up, delivering a salacious performance that's a malevolent cross between Anne Hathaway's nutty White Queen in Alice and Michelle Pfeiffer's sexually empowered Catwoman in Batman Returns. When she and Depp are together, the movie comes close to generating sparks — though their room-devastating tryst doesn't match Jeff Goldblum and Emma Thompson's furniture-breaking boff in 1989's The Tall Guy.
As might be expected, Depp is infectiously charming as the orotund, emo, go-getter vampire. Confused by his modern surroundings yet confident of his place in the world, he brings the right mix of entitlement, amorality and romantic sincerity to the role. Still, it's all affectation, another quirky cinematic action figure to add to his already sagging shelf.
But damn if the movie doesn't look terrific, with its atmospheric New England trappings, blood-splashed makeup, creative effects, and ornate costumes. Tim Burton has yet to make a badly designed film. But over the years he has lost some of the sharp wit that complemented his stylistic flair. While Dark Shadows hints at some '70s-era kinkiness (a nice balance to the decadent gothic trappings), Burton never cuts loose, opting to use the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll hedonism of the era — look for Alice Cooper! — as a saucy accessory to an otherwise tame game of multimillion-dollar dress-up.