In Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson's character travels back in time to the "golden age" of the 1920s, only to find that the people of that time dream of an even older time, and the people in THAT time pine for an even earlier period, and so on. At the end of the film, Wilson's character is a changed man who wants to live in the now, having learned that the past for which he was so nostalgic is a false ideal, and maybe the present isn't so bad after all.
No such revelation ever happens in the world of Dark Shadows. There's a storyline in the original TV series in which a handful of characters hold a kind of intervention for Victoria Winters, the lead female character, concerned that she's "becoming too obsessed with the past." It's a charge of which pretty much the entire property was guilty: the show spent months upon months in other time periods, its characters escaping to the past using seances, mystical I Ching configurations, magic staircases, etc. Time and again, the show told us, the solution to a problem in the present could only be found in the past. Victoria Winters ultimately found happiness by picking up and permanently moving to the 18th century. No one ever learned to move forward.
No one in the new Dark Shadows learns that lesson, either: not the depleted Collins family, wasting away Grey Gardens-style in their crumbling mansion; not their recently resurrected 18th century vampire ancestor Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), who pines for his long-dead love, Josette du Pres (Bella Heathcote); not Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), a seemingly immortal witch who killed Barnabas’ parents and fiancee, cursed Barnabas as a vampire, and now lives to carry out a 200 year-old grudge against the Collins family. No one in this movie wants to leave the past behind - least of all, alas, Depp and director Tim Burton.
Of course Burton's "update" of the 60s soap takes place in 1972, as it lets him and his nostalgia-prone star play in more than one historical sandbox. But the good news is it's a surprisingly non-Burton looking 1972 - maybe his most naturalistic looking film since the the “real world” scenes in Big Fish. Burton's standard cartoonish production design is present inside the walls of Collinwood, but toned down with a dusty, autumnal New England color palette. There's an over-reliance on period pop songs: gone is the show’s signature theme music. The franchise’s seemingly obligatory opening shot of Victoria Winters (Heathcote again, pulling double duty) traveling by train to Collinsport - which has kicked off every iteration of the story since 1966 - is instead set (rather effectively) to The Moody Blues’ “Nights In White Satin.” Even when the songs seem gimmicky (which is often; there are probably two ironically-scored montages too many), one ends up kind of grateful for how they help further detach the film from the now-cliched Tim Burton Style.
For such a bonkers premise, the film operates for the most part within a pretty "normal" world, which unfortunately makes Depp's Barnabas Collins stand out even more. He looks like an Edward Gorey illustration standing in a vintage Sears family portrait. Coupled with the exaggerated mannerisms of an 18th century aristocrat, the outward appearance of this Barnabas means he cannot hope to disguise himself as “a cousin from England” as previous versions did. There’s one feeble attempt to sell the distant relative cover story to the Collins clan over breakfast, but Barnabas seems too proud or obtuse to even try, and so the family just sort of goes with the vampire thing. One gets the feeling we’re meant to as well, but a slightly toned down appearance (whatever happened to this look?) might have smoothed over some of the more absurd bumps in the road.
If you’re one of the chorus of people tired of Depp’s over-the-top performances, this one won’t win you back. But if you had the clarity to maybe skip the last couple Pirates of the Caribbean movies and Alice In Wonderland (and really, why wouldn’t you have? You gotta pace yourself with this stuff), you might be on board with Depp’s quasi-impersonation of Original Flavor Barnabas (the late Jonathan Frid, who makes the briefest of cameos as a party guest). "Oooh, no one talks like you anymore," coos Angelique, and Depp's Barnabas sneers with pride. While many of his “fish out of water” lines often feel more like fish in a barrel, Depp’s best moments are non-verbal, as he delivers a physicality that lends his performance a stylized, silent film flavor.
Thankfully, Depp is the only performer doing anything resembling a tribute to the original series. Everyone else does their own thing, and it mostly works: top marks have to go to Eva Green, so transformed from what we’ve seen before that at times it seems as if her voice is dubbed over by another actress. She goes big, but doesn’t chew the scenery so much as snarls at it and seduces it into jumping into her mouth. She’s also the grinning-est movie villain this side of the Joker (and she’s got his porcelain complexion to boot). I wanted more of Jonny Lee Miller’s old-school cad Roger Collins, and while Helena Bonham Carter brings some laughs as live-in psychiatrist/drunk Dr. Julia Hoffman, I expected the character to factor more heavily into the film’s plot. (I’m fully aware that both these complaints are likely derived from hundreds of hours of watching the original.). Michelle Pfeiffer is having fun (though, again, the film feels light on her) as the dessicated family’s resigned matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, and Chloë Grace Moretz gets most of the best punchlines as Elizabeth’s daughter Carolyn, a teen who really isn't kidding when she complains that no one understands her. Jackie Earle Haley provides reliable comic relief as Willie Loomis, the mansion’s sole handyman-turned-vampire-slave (“There used to be a staff of 100 taking care of this place. Now there’s a staff o’ me”). Gully McGrath has a mostly thankless role as Roger’s son David, but he might be the subtlest actor of the bunch, earning audience sympathy with sidelong glances and shy smiles thrown to his new governess, Victoria.
And Victoria is where the problems start. While Heathcote's fine (especially early in the film, before the movie abandons her for long stretches), her character’s arc is another story. Her and Barnabas’ love story is, on paper, supposed to drive the narrative, and it's beyond lacking. Paper-thin. Which is frustrating, as Depp and Burton can do serviceable melodramatic emotional content in their sleep; I remember choking up during Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, even the end of Sweeney Todd. But here, nothing. The romance just isn't developed, under-served in the same way a lot of the personal relationships in the film are. It might be a question of temporal real estate; Barnabas has no less than four women throwing themselves at him in the film, but none of those connections are given enough time or weight to click with the viewer.
The other half of the film’s plot concerns Barnabas waking up to discover that the Collins family has been driven out of business and into seclusion by its chief business rival, Angelbay Seafood, run by you-know-whom. While Barnabas has been chained in a coffin for 200 years, the spurned witch who cursed him has been building an empire by chipping away at the Collins’. Bankrolled by a stash of jewels hidden in a secret room of the house, Barnabas means to restore the family business, kill the competition (literally) and, with the help of Dr. Hoffman, cure his vampirism.
Then, as is wont to happen in a soap opera, a lot of passionate talking happens. Scene after scene of it. Thankfully, it’s peppered with some genuine, earned laughs. Crammed all into one trailer, the jokes seem broad and obvious, but given room to breathe, the humor actually plays rather well within its respective scenes (and with an audience). But there are a deadly handful of moments where Burton trips over the line into nonsensical buffoonery. There are two sex scenes which just don't work; even if they didn't feel so out of place in the otherwise chaste, school play atmosphere, they're delivered in such jarring, tone-deaf shifts that the film's already tenuous spell is broken by them. As Barnabas backslides into a romp with Angelique, one struggles to think of another scene that looked so technically difficult to execute while still coming off as if no one involved cared about it.
Another spot in which the movie falters is in its admittedly valiant attempt to cram in too much of the series’ spirit. As a fan, it was fun to see Burton & Co. try to give viewers a more "complete" version of Dark Shadows than was hinted at in the trailers. But at the same time, they screw around with an overlong second act, running out the clock until it's time to end the movie, and then go for a kitchen sink climax that feels mostly unearned. Forget a deux ex machina; this movie has a ghost ex machina, a werewolf ex machina and a vampire ex machina. The film’s finale is an unfortunate case of twenty pounds of cheesy soap opera monster movie in a ten pound bag.
There are a few grading curves we can apply here: as a Dark Shadows adaptation, it's probably as good a film as fans could have hoped for. It's obviously made with love and affection, but with enough irreverent curve balls to keep it from being a dreary rehash. Appropriate fan service is paid (there’s one moment, taken word for word from Frid’s original performance, that will delight devotees of the series), but the property is never put on a pedestal. It's actually a real shame that the only people who'll truly respond to the film are the longtime fans who'll feel the movie does their favorite show a disservice. In any event, it’s more fun than any previous attempt to relaunch the property, which sounds like faint praise, but keep in mind this is the fourth reboot of the show. And as a fan, it’s important to step back and understand that it’s not some grand betrayal that Burton and Depp colored so far outside the lines; rather, it's amazing that they even picked up the coloring book. As a Tim Burton film, it's a comparatively restrained effort, somewhere between Big Fish and...well, other parts of Big Fish. If you've soured on Burton over the last few years, the good news is Dark Shadows is a stylistic gear shift. The bad news is the film is plagued by Burton’s clumsy denouement issues, which go way further back than three films. As a summer movie, it's an oddball mix of dry humor and wet horror, with a lively, crowded climax that will generate a chorus of "Wait, what?" throughout the audience. And it feels way longer than its 113 minute running time, which isn’t going to help word of mouth.
Burton's filmography is a junk drawer stuffed full of love letters to the past: Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Sweeney Todd, Big Fish, et al. Even his futuristic films (Planet of the Apes, Mars Attacks!) are decidedly retro, derived from properties he loved as a kid. 22 years ago he found his ideal playmate in Johnny Depp, an actor whose most memorable roles are also, with or without Burton, tied to the past. We shouldn't be surprised; Depp once claimed in an interview he got separation anxiety from urinating in the morning, as it signified saying goodbye to the previous day. It's safe to say we're dealing with two artists who, like the hapless Victoria Winters and all the fans of the original Dark Shadows (this reviewer included), are obsessed with hanging onto yesterday. As a result, we have a film so preoccupied with looking backward that precious little new ground is broken. The duo seems content to play dress-up and run in place, happily frozen in time.