Published May 11, 2012

By R. David

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp collaborating on a big screen treatment of the fondly remembered 1960s vampire soap opera “Dark Shadows” feels like a no-brainer.  Burton is drawn to the macabre and surreal, Depp is drawn to fanciful period pieces that allow him to employ flamboyant costumes and accents, and both men seem to be drawn to each other.  “Dark Shadows” marks the duos eighth pairing in what has been a very lucrative, if creatively hit and miss, partnership.  With “Shadows” falling so squarely into their wheelhouse it is not just disappointing that the film they have concocted feels lacking in any real passion for the source material and interesting ideas as to how it should be adapted and updated, but downright puzzling.   One can imagine a studio coming up with a lackluster remake strategy for “Dark Shadows” – simply crank out a quicky product to cash-in while remakes and vampires are still all the rage  – but why two talents like Depp and Burton would sign on only to submit a pedestrian, workmanlike retread that lacks the director’s trademark veracity makes little sense.

Alas, not much else about this wrong-headed, unoriginal, predictable and, frankly, boring reimagining makes much sense either.   Depp plays Barnabus Collins, the 18th century heir to a New England fishing empire who is content to fool around with one of his maids, Angelique (Eva Green); that is until he falls in love with Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcoat; lovely, but boring).  Big mistake.  It turns out Anelique is actually a witch; and a jealous, emotionally unstable one at that.  She possesses Victoria and forces her to walk off a cliff and then turns Barnabus into a vampire so he will never die, then locks him up in  a coffin where he will be doomed to spend eternity.  Chicks, man.

Fast forward to 200 years, Barnabus is awoken from his slumber when a construction crew digs up his coffin.  He immediately returns to his old homestead, Collinwood Manor, which is now inhabited by the Collins clan of the 1970s, who all basically function as the usual gallery of Burton archetypes; but as is becoming increasingly common of Burton’s films as of late, these are more caricatures than characters.  Michelle Pfieffer is the matriarch, head of the household who prefers to turn a blind eye to her family and the family business falling apart, Chloe Grace Moretz as a petulant teen in the Wynonna Ryder/“Beetlejuice” mold.  She is wise beyond her years, quick with a witty quip and generally ignored by her family.  Helena Bonham Carter (AKA Mrs. Tim Burton, who is the only other actor to rival Depp for most Burton collaborations) plays a psychologist treating the youngest Collins, David (Gulliver McGrath), but she has more addictions and secrets than any of her patients.  Jackie Earl Haley as a groundskeeper, Johnny Lee Miller and Christopher Lee also figure into the already overstuffed cast and plot, which has Barnabus determined to restore the Collins business to its former glory, while also carrying out revenge for his curse and the murder of his beloved.  As luck would have it, he can kill two birds with one stone because Angelique is now the head of the town’s rival fishing empire.

As is most often the case with Burton’s films, “Dark Shadows’” real strength is in its set design and quirky characters.  Or it would be anyway if even these aspects didn’t feel so phoned in here.  No doubt there is a pleasing visual aesthetic here, but it does not feel fussed over in the way some of Burton’s truly visionary films are.  We get pretty much the bare minimum expected from a big budget film that involves lofty mansions and a trip back in time.  Any production designer worth their fee could have come up with what’s on screen here.  Similarly, the characters, while fun in some scenes, feel like someone’s imitation of the Burton weirdo stable.  They all have a defining characteristic or trait that comes in handy when they pop up in a scene or two, and then they wander back into the shadows until they are called upon again either to move the plot along or provide comic relief.  All of the actors are good here, and most of them have a funny individual moment or two, but what’s missing here are characters that feel fully realized or the least bit authentic.   It’s as if being entertainingly goofy here and there was all Burton demanded.  There is simply no heart.  “Dark Shadows” just goes through the Burtonesque motions.

The plot and ‘70s setting also serve nothing other than the most mundane and predictable tropes.  There are all the request jokes about Barnabus being a fish out of water in a time of cars, TV, drugs, rock and roll and fast food, mostly because there has to be, not because anyone came up with any jokes that were particularly original or funny.  Why not set the film in present day?  The fact that they picked the 70s seems completely arbitrary as there is nothing about that specific decade that the story hinges on.  As for the story itself, if you’ve seen any TV-film adaptation from “The Addams Family” to “Wayne’s World” to “The Brady Bunch”, you’ve seen this movie.  All sorts of misunderstandings and double-crosses ensue in an overall plot to bilk the protagonist out of his money/business, climaxing in an overblown spectacle the wraps everything up nicely for everyone involved.

The Depp/Burton collaborations have been yielding diminishing returns for a while now.  They finally bottom out with “Dark Shadows”.  I have no problem with them working together, but for two men who are true artists in their fields, I expect far more than a pale imitation of the sort of thing they’ve done before.

2 stars out of 4.