I’m not necessarily proud to admit it, but I’ve rooted against relationships in the past. I’ve done this for various reasons: I was interested in dating the guy in said relationship, I knew something about the relationship that both parties weren’t aware of (infidelity) or because I didn’t think that the people were happy within the relationship. But never have I been rooting for a break-up with as pure a motivation as I am when rooting for the end of the Johnny Depp and Tim Burton collaboration. What may have originally seemed like a good match has now definitely hit the point of diminishing returns. Seeing the mess that is Dark Shadows made that all too apparent.
Dark Shadows is based on the 1960’s cult soap opera about the Collins family. Though not originally part of the storyline, the show became immensely popular when it introduced the character of Barnabus Collins, who was a vampire. The show incorporated other elements of the supernatural, like witches, werewolves, ghosts and zombies as well as time travel. I’ve never actually seen the original (or the 1991 remake with Joseph Gordon-Levitt), but it sounded coo coo bananas, even for a soap opera. I originally thought it was promising when it was announced that Burton and Depp were doing the theatrical version; a gothic soap opera with all this insanity sounds like it would be right in their wheelhouse. This optimism faltered a bit when the first trailer for the film was revealed. While the original Dark Shadows contained a lot of unusual elements, the story was always played seriously. Burton appeared to be playing it all for laughs and the camp factor of his version looked to be off the charts, causing some concern among fans of the original. I recalibrated my expectations, but still thought that there was some potential. If done right, a campy take could also be a lot of fun.
I realized that I was in trouble about 15 minutes into the film.
The main problem with Burton’s Dark Shadows is that it can’t decide what type of movie that it wants to be. Though the trailer focused on camp, he never fully commits to it and the few laughs in the film are all featured in the trailer. It’s not quite a drama, nor does it fully embrace the potential for horror. This failure to select a tone results in a haphazard movie that is ultimately very boring. The storyline is extremely disjointed; characters and plot devices are introduced and then ultimately forgotten or resolved in an unsatisfactory manner. The viewer has little to no investment in the characters or the stakes of the film. I just didn’t care what happened to any of them. About halfway through, I began checking my email during the movie. That’s how disinterested I was. I’ve walked out of one film in my life, the dreadful Road to Wellville, but I weighed whether to walk out of Dark Shadows. I just thought that my time would be better spent doing something else, like watching paint dry. During the movie’s climax there is a totally out of left field plot development that is so ridiculous and unearned that I just started laughing. I’m guessing that it was a nod to a plot point from the original soap, but it is so poorly executed and just thrown in that it has absolutely no resonance.
There were two positive aspects to the film. The first was Johnny Depp as Barnabus. Even when he is in a terrible movie, I always think that Depp is interesting to watch. His acting choices are always something different and usually result in a memorable character (for good or for bad). He isn’t boring; even when I don’t agree with his conceptualization of a character (Willy Wonka), I am at least curious what he is going to do with the role and how his version of the character is going to play out. I thought his Barnabus was actually pretty good and was definitely the one bright spot of the movie. When he was on the screen, I was more fully engaged. I can’t speak to how loyal his interpretation was to the original, though based on photographs Burton and company decided to make Depp’s Barnabus look more like a vampire than was done in the soap opera. It’s just unfortunate that Depp and the other talented actors in the cast (Michelle Pfeiffer, Jack Earle Haley, Jonny Lee Miller) weren’t given more to work with.
The other strength of the film is its appearance. Visually, the movie is quite striking. Burton movies all tend to look the same, but his tendencies actually work for this story line. The costuming, set design and the lighting all are pitch perfect. There were several scenes in the movie where it was just nice to look at, especially when the characters aren’t talking or trying to advance the plot. Burton’s darkness and Gothic sensibilities are put to good use with the film and it’s a shame that this is also wasted.
Dark Shadows’ tonal inconsistency and poor plotting and writing ultimately overshadow the few good components of the film. What potential there was for a successful partnership between the actors and director and the source material is completely squandered. It is time for Burton and Depp to part company and see if they can get their creative mojo back separately. Neither is well served by this continued collaboration. Dark Shadows was dreadful and should be skipped.