Tim Burton always walked a razor’s edge between genius and self-indulgence. The visionary nature of his early films struck a chord with audiences and quickly made him one of the most bankable directors in Hollywood. Over time, however, his formula became as creaky and overused as the conventions he initially overthrew: exquisite production values propping up the same tired story of lonely outsiders and tragic monsters. In many cases, such as 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, the visual splendor and occasional great performance counteracted his rambling would-be narrative. But each film inched closer and closer to Hollywood’s traditional blockbuster model of spectacle over humanity. Even worse, his shtick grew predictable right down to the timing of the choral arias in Danny Elfman’s scores.
Dark Shadows absorbs all of the bad karma of Burton’s previous films, then releases it in a toxic afterbirth of a motion picture. It grabs heaping fistfuls of Hollywood’s various obsessions-du-jour – TV remakes, vampires, potential franchise starters – and expects its resident auteur to make them all work. He fails on levels I wouldn’t have imagined possible. Though reportedly a huge fan of the 1960s soap opera, Burton can’t decide whether he wants to honor it, update it, send it up, or cannibalize it for spare parts. He tries to do all of them at once, and turns it into a disaster of breathtaking proportions.
It becomes even more unbearable in the face of The Avengers, which taught a master’s class on how to fuse multiple narratives into an organic whole. Dark Shadows features just as many characters in its bizarre family of Gothic outcasts, but treats them like spinning plates rather than interweaving threads. As we rush back and forth between them, our impetus to care drops to nothing, replaced by disappointment and irritation.
Johnny Depp ostensibly serves to hold it all together as reluctant vampire Barnabus Collins. Cursed by a jealous witch (Eva Green) in 18th century Maine, he emerges from his coffin 200 years later to find a world transformed. It’s 1972, bell bottoms are all the rage, and his once proud fishing magnate family now lies on the verge of destruction. That same witch is behind it all – buying up rival fishing canneries and running Collins’ descendants out of business – which sets the stage for a rematch between the two supernatural rivals.
But wait! It seems that Barnabus also engaged in a doomed love affair back in the day, and the ghost of his lady love still haunts the imposing family estate. There’s another ghost too, as well as a new nanny (Bella Heathcoate) who catches Barnabus’s eye and who may or may not serve as a conduit for both unquiet spirits. But wait! There’s also the question of Barnabus’s vampirism, which the family’s alcoholic shrink (Helena Bonham Carter) thinks she can cure but which she actually uses to further a sinister agenda of her own. But wait! There’s also the little boy (Gulliver McGrath) who everyone thinks is crazy, the teenage girl (Chloe Moretz) with a third-act revelation apparently pulled straight out of the screenwriter’s ass, the deadbeat brother (Jonny Lee Miller) constantly scamming money even though he doesn’t need it, and for some unknown reason, Jackie Earle Haley.
As sudsy intrigue sufficient for 1000 episodes worth of soaps, it all does fine. As a two-hour movie, it will give you headaches. Dark Shadows shows no inclination to craft them into a narrative engine, content instead to fling them at us in haphazard chunks before leaping madly to the next subplot. The question of what fish canning has to do with undead blood vendettas – and countless other issues just like it – never enter the movie’s head. An attempt to infuse either overt irony or greater importance to such tidbits would have done wonders. Dark Shadows, unfortunately, is too concerned to giving the principles enough screen time to deal with even the vaguest hints of upkeep.
Burton, always more painter than writer, simply can’t keep up with the story’s requirements. Nor can he settle on a consistent tone with which to counter his narrative shortcomings. Lame jokes and corny delivery compete with more subtle campiness, all of them running straight into the overtly serious doomed romance at which he normally excels. The cast dives into eccentricities with desperate abandon: led by Depp who vacillates between jokey and tragic with the same vagueness that plagues the rest of the film. Green does better – I could watch that chick uncork The Crazy all day – but she’s fighting for breathing room the whole time. Carter lets her character’s drunkenness overwhelm her, while Michelle Pfeiffer – playing the Collins clan matriarch – is content to simply mark time and wait for the whole thing to end.
As a last recourse, Dark Shadows papers over its flaws with sterling costumes and production design. It looks damn sexy and Burton pays close attention to the various visual nooks and crannies of his world. Even here, however, ennui eventually creeps in: numbed by the director’s numerous excursions into the same basic material. Wholesale change may be impossible at this stage in his career, but he needs to grow past the confines that have no completely boxed him in. Dark Shadows stands as a testament to the failings of his vision, with none of the successes to back them up. It leaves the auteur lost in a maze of his own making… and the audience wondering if he might ever find his way out again.