Dark Shadows (review)

Dark Shadows red light Johnny Depp

The Horror, the Horror

Hoorah for Tim Burton and the new nadir of narcissistic awfulness he achieves with Dark Shadows. It’s as if the mere idea of itself — Tim Burton and Johnny Depp do campy supernatural soap opera! — was alone assumed to be enough to coast through two hours of cinema. Oh, for certain, there is a breeziness here: but it’s the breeze of laziness, of contempt, of disregard for basic conventions of storytelling. Who needs story? Burton! Depp! Shadows! Whatever movie you can conjure in your head will surely be far more satisfying that what ended up onscreen. Burton’s last film, the dreadful Alice in Wonderland, was nothing more than a coffeetable book about its own production design. Dark Shadows takes the futility a meta step beyond, daring to be nothing but the wisp of its own conceit.

It’s not a dare that pays off.

To call Dark Shadows misbegotten would presume there was any begetting involved, and I simply don’t see how that could have been the case, for there is no evidence whatsoever onscreen of any sort of plan to craft something approaching a cohesive film. Screenwriter John August is responsible for “writing” one of the most meaningless movies ever — Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle — which was apparently mere preparation for this. (The other screenwriter? Newbie Seth Grahame-Smith, who now makes me dread his upcoming Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter even more.) As a narrative, this is incompetent on levels small and large. It opens with the 18th-century gothic tease of Barnabas Collins (Depp: The Rum Diary, Rango) running afoul of a witch (Eva Green: The Golden Compass, Casino Royale) and losing his beloved (Bella Heathcote: In Time) to a magical curse, all of which happens in an unsatisfying rush, never creating any drama or romance or horror, though not without dropping in tidbits — such as how Barnabas becomes “obsessed with dark magic” — that taunt you with the potential they might have were they explored or even mentioned again.

There’s a Tim Burton movie buried in here somewhere… an old-style Burton movie, back when he made wonderfully weird and creepy flicks like the ravishing and compelling Sleepy Hollow, which was dripping not only with atmosphere but with something consequential to say about fear and power and sex. Dark Shadows has nothing to say except: Aren’t lava lamps kitschy? Isn’t macramé hilarious? Weren’t the 1970s a laugh riot? For all the rushing through that opening sequence is so the movie can get to Barnabas awakening from a two-hundred-year imprisonment at the witch’s hands to find himself back in gloomy Collinsport, Maine, in that allegedly uproarious decade.

Here’s where the movie gets downright horrific. Oh, it’s not scary: it’s shockingly, appallingly inept, and it keeps getting worse and worse, as if it were descending into its very own bespoke circle of cinematic hell. For now it switches gears — that grinding noise you hear is genres being crushed together, feebly and clumsily — and wants to be a comedy. Yet it does nothing at all to attempt to be funny. Unless the fact that absolutely no one — not the current Collinses occupying the family manor; not any of the townspeople — can see how perfectly plain it is that Barnabas is a vampire is meant to be funny. It isn’t. It just makes them all look stupid.

With the switch to the 1970s, Depp turns to parodying himself, which is hugely unpleasant to watch. Poor Michelle Pfeiffer (New Year’s Eve, Stardust) is to be pitied as the Collins matriarch: she knows Barnabas’s secret but doesn’t get to vamp it up, in any way, as his new business partner, and mostly just tiptoes through the background looking useless and bored. Oh, and the business: fishing and a fish cannery. If the notion of something so mundane for a vampire to be making a living at has any comedic potential, you’d never know it from this. And yet an awful — and I do mean awful — lot of time is spent on the business side of things, so much so that the film ends up attempting to be drama again, if only by default. It’s very boring drama, and often pointlessly manipulative, as with the desperately unfunny stuff about the abandonment of the very young David Collins (Gulliver McGrath: Hugo) by his Collins father, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller [Aeon Flux, Love, Honour, and Obey], totally wasted). Helena Bonham Carter (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, The King’s Speech) as a visiting shrink — whose presence makes no sense either as drama or comedy — and Chloë Grace Moretz (Hugo, Let Me In) as a petulant teenaged Collins are entirely superfluous… until each gets a wholly enraging and unforgivable moment, both instances examples of how just when you don’t think the film can get any dumber or cheat any more, it does.

Threads of plots that were vaporous to begin with are dropped and never returned to. The characters are barely characters, and exist mainly to talk to one another about the romance and scheming that is apparently happening offscreen. (There is no comedy happening offscreen, as far I can determine.) This Dark Shadows would be an embarrassment if it were offered up by inexperienced filmmakers. Coming from Burton, it’s beyond bizarre: it’s unfathomable. It’s a disaster of depressingly small ambitions and immeasurably enormous incompetence. This simply does not work on any level, in any way. The only intrigue or interest to be found is in wondering just how the hell this got made at all.

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