Tim Burton is a director with an undoubtedly singular vision, albeit one which comes under a fresh battery of criticism each time he releases a new film. After all, are his quirky gothic stylings not a little tired and overdone by now? The inventive genius and sheer passion that infused his best works (Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood) has been absent for a while, but at least his last effort, the stylistically dazzling but narratively underwhelming Alice in Wonderland, had the good fortune of mining Lewis Carroll’s rich array of characters. With the director’s adaptation of the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, however, his luck finally appears to run out, delivering what is little more than a half-baked auto-update of the classic series, and a suggestion that Burton’s persistent style has finally worn thin.
Burton certainly doesn’t have an excuse for turning in mediocre work here, because the source material is both effervescent and witty, taking a postmodern slant on the vampire lore of centuries old. Johnny Depp, in his eighth collaboration with Burton, plays Barnabas Collins, a man who, in the 18th century, breaks the heart of a young witch, Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), and in revenge, is not only turned into a vampire but also buried alive. Collins awakens in 1972, and upon visiting his family manor, meets his descendants, matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her daughter Carolyn (Chloë Moretz), Elizabeth’s brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), and his son David (Gulliver McGrath). Also residing at the mansion are Elizabeth’s live-in psychologist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) and David’s carer, Victoria (Bella Heathcote). When Barnabas promises to help save their fledgling fishing business – which is suffering thanks to a rival company, headed up by Angelique – they allow him to stay at the family home.
There’s a great film within Burton’s framework, but this, more so than any of his other films, feels lazy and hastily conceived, oddly confident in itself despite being the most obvious rehash of past successes. Characteristically, there are plenty of enticing visuals throughout, but an overt reliance on the very same palette and shot selection of his back catalogue makes this feel like a patchwork assembled from greater efforts. Thematically, things play out too much like a high school adaptation of Edward Scissorhands; the trajectory is oddly similar – not something you can square against the source material either – and Burton just goes through the motions, like an impostor trying to ape the director’s style.
Also, while a magnificent cast has been assembled here, Burton fails to make interesting use of many of them, and crucially, can’t seem to keep track. There is no cohesion; actors disappear for lengthy periods at a time, killing the momentum of several dynamics, especially the romantic one between Barnabas and Victoria. Suffering particularly is Heathcote, an alluring screen presence who was elided from the marketing almost entirely, despite being a more important element of the film than maybe anyone but Depp. That Burton can’t find too much of interest for her to do is a shame, and likewise, fine thesps like Carter, Moretz and Pfeiffer rarely get good dialogue to chew through, even if their natural presences do provide some light amusement. Meanwhile, cameo appearances from the likes of Christopher Lee and Alice Cooper are pretty much wasted as, again, they aren’t given much to do. Depp, then, will likely serve as the major drawing point for most audiences; it is another charismatic turn for sure – albeit one which by its nature won’t have the ladies swooning – yet the script doesn’t allow him to do much more than coast, just like his underwhelming turn as the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland. In fact, this is that rare Burton film that might do more for the boyfriends dragged to see it; Eva Green is extremely well-cast as the sexy, salacious witch, and makes the best of what she has in every sense.
For the first time in his career, Burton also struggles to nail a clear tone; the film is at one second vicious and violent, and at a moment’s notice, switches gears to tell a silly joke or daft sight gag. Had the film shot for a more adult audience, Burton’s aims might have been clearer; instead, he has to walk on eggshells around murder, drugs and sex, with his work suffering for it. Barnabas, for instance, slaughters about twenty people throughout, but little attempt is made to reconcile this, making it clash quite clumsily with the harmless, overblown comedy. What is Burton trying to make? It seems unclear, for the film is too culturally au fait and postmodern to be a B-movie in the vein of Ed Wood – brilliant though that would have been – yet is too outlandish to be taken as serious gothic horror, and too horrific to be digested as a quirky, fish-out-of-water comedy. The erratic trajectory of the plot might not be his most abject failure, but it is his most unexpected and disappointing one.
The batty finale we arrive at is a mess but at least a lot more lively than the rest of the picture; some curious character affectations – particularly of Moretz’s Carolyn – feel completely forced, but it does demonstrate an all-out enthusiasm that is lacking in the first two reels. It doesn’t feel like a passion project but instead a mechanised blockbuster, which even at his worst, is not really something Burton is known for. Ultimately, Dark Shadows winds up not so much an apotheosis of Burton’s style as it is a humble reminder of his strengths and weaknesses. Depp fans might be able to forgive it, but we should expect more from a partnership which was once upon a time so fruitful.
Dark Shadows is in cinemas from Friday May 11th.