Once again, Johnny Depp has crawled up into the black, velvety warmth of Tim Burton’s goth-gina. And in doing so, he gives one of his best performances of recent memory in service of a truly mediocre film.
While the idea of Burton directing a film based on a 60’s soap opera surrounding a vampire certainly has a certain appeal on paper, the film itself has such an issue establishing tone whilst dropping and picking up plotlines seemingly at random, it ends up being an absolute mess (but without the bizarre charm that made Mars Attacks a darkly fun mess.)
To start with the things about the film that work, there are several good performances here. Despite his plasticine hair and make-up that makes him look like a character from a black and white horror film surrounded by a wash of tie-dyed color, Depp does give a winning performance as the long-gone patriarch of the Collins clan, the vampiric Barnabas. He plays funny and sympathetic, but never makes you forget he’s now a monster. He protects his family and tries to find justice, but he also is a remorseless killing machine. The rest of the cast puts in serviceable to excellent performances as well, but the problem is that many of them feel like they’re acting in different films. Chloe Grace-Moretz, and Jackie Earl Haley are both often funny, but they’re not given all that much to do. Bella Heathcote is lovely, but with the exception of a flashback that is one of the few moments of the film with real pathos, she mostly seems to exist (like her namesake from that other vampire property) to be a blank canvas on which Barnabas can project. Alice Cooper rehashes his cameo in Wayne’s World, but without the chance to be an actual character. Helena Bonham Carter possibly might be trying to become a middle-aged female version of Crispin Glover because her acting choices just get more and more nuts. And Eva Green shows that if any producers can’t get Gary Oldman to be a scenery-chewing villain, they can change the gender of the character and cast her. She seems to not just be in another movie, but possibly on another planet.
The design of the film actually works really well. The Collins mansion is beautifully realized and the seventies motifs manage to hold onto a lot of the mod ’60s, which seems absolutely perfect for Burton’s camera. It’s one of the better looking films he’s done in a while: Full, but never overdone like Alice in Wonderland.
It’s the plot where the film really falls apart as the film can’t decide what it is. Part of me wants to say it’s a commentary on the nature of soap opera in as much as characters and ideas are simply dropped in and from the film with little warning, but it’s either too subtle to truly come off that way or it was never intended as such. And the ending has so much about it that is completely out of left field, that it feels like there was a reel missing. Moretz’ character especially has a plot twist that simply comes with no warning. Green’s witch character (who cursed Barnabas in the first place to his fate) has such an odd turn at the end that it seems to have happened just because the script writers (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’s Seth Grahame-Smith being one of them) must have written themselves into a corner and just said “screw it.” It’s actually sad that something which, based on the trailer promised a wacky romp, ends up being far too maudlin for it’s own good so that when the over-the-top ending strikes, it’s simply too much at once.
At most, Dark Shadows is a cult film for cable and the Burton faithful.
(Two out of five stars)