The beginning of Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows is a churn of event. The year is 1760. We are in Liverpool, as a ship sets sail for the New World. Before climbing aboard, the patriarch of the Collins family instructs his young son that family is the only real wealth, thus hinting at a story that’s about blood in more ways than one, and then, in America, this family establishes itself as a presence so powerful that the town comes to be called Collinsport. They move into one of those manors only Burton’s production designers seem to be capable of designing, with Gothic turrets and a ziggurat-like roof sections, and in one of its 200 rooms, we see Barnabas, the son from Liverpool, all grown up now, and in the arms of Angelique (Eva Green). To him, she’s sport. But she loves him, and when he spurns her, she resorts to witchery – in an impressive fit of productivity, she murders his parents, tosses his lover (the wraithlike Bella Heathcote) over a cliff, and turns Barnabas into a vampire. I pumped an imaginary fist in the air and thought: Tim Burton is back.
Burton is one of the most oddly mannered of artists, and even his career is oddly shaped. If there was a film capable of yanking him out of his quirky inner-world and into big-budget-spectacle mode, you’d think it would have been Batman, which became a massive worldwide smash, grossing more that year than even Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But his follow-up was the moving and intimate Edward Scissorhands, and even Batman Returns, a couple of years after, was anything but safe, tuning into the caped crusader’s twisted nightmares long before Christopher Nolan cast Batman into the inky depths of the universe. And then, unexpectedly, Burton returned to Beetlejuice quirk with the supremely undervalued Mars Attacks!, which barely recovered its costs, and that failure finally did what the success of Batman didn’t: Burton defected to blockbuster mode and never really returned. Sleepy Hollow onwards – and with the great exception of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – each Burton film felt like he was coasting on a list of checkboxes. Eccentric story. Outré production design. Moody cinematography. He’d become all visual shtick with a hollow centre, the nadirs coming with the dreadfully overblown productions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland.
The early portions of Dark Shadows are brined in Burton’s characteristically macabre whimsy, but he also demonstrates a lightness of touch he hasn’t in a long while. It feels like a homecoming of sorts when Barnabas, two centuries later, moves in with the family that’s presently occupying his manor – it’s Beetlejuice all over again. Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), who always seems to be appearing at the head of the stairs, presides over the few remaining descendants of the original Collinses, a pallid bunch; it’s as if no one had ever stepped out of the house and into sunlight. She welcomes Barnabas grudgingly (he knows where the manor’s treasures are hidden), and he decides he will restore his family to its former glory. For a while, Burton and Depp seem to be after a fish-out-of-water comedy – Encino Man as reimagined by Poe in a larkish fit. Will frock-coated Barnabas, with his insatiable thirst for human blood, make it in 1972, as the Collinsport theatres advertise Deliverance and Super Fly and the air is charged with strains from Crocodile Rock and Top of the World?
This premise is fun for a while, but it’s abandoned as we’re ushered into a subplot where Barnabas seeks to reestablish the family’s seafood business, in which course he runs into the deathless Angelique, now the most powerful woman in town. (One of the film’s drollest touches has Angelique stroll past self-portraits of her supposed ancestors. They all look exactly like her, unsurprisingly, for they all are her.) Angelique attempts to rekindle their centuries-old passion, but once again, he sleeps with her and then spurns her. We expect Angelique’s anger to animate the remainder of the film (she’s twice bitten now), but that narrative thread is snapped as we’re led into the offices of the redheaded psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter, giving the same spacey performance she gives in every one of Burton’s films). Dr. Hoffman seems to harbour a secret, as does the governess named Victoria (Bella Heathcote again), as do the children of the manor, Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz) and David (Gulliver McGrath). Each of these characters threatens to develop into a major player in the proceedings. None do.
Depp, with his inverted-comma bangs, and the formidably loose-limbed Green commandeer the best lines, the best swatches of scenery to chew on, and they leave everyone else in the dust. But even their spirited mugging can only go so far towards redeeming a film so pointless, so weightless – scenes seem to drift away even as we are watching them. It all adds up to… nothing. And Burton never addresses the troubling subtext of Barnabas being an unrepentant womaniser and a compulsive killer. (It sounds worse in the movie when someone says, of his victims, “Some maniac ripped their throats off.”). We’re confused whether he’s supposed to be funny or scary or a bit of both. Maybe it will all make sense to those who watched the original television show. I looked up Wikipedia and found that Dark Shadows, on TV, “was distinguished by its vividly melodramatic performances, atmospheric interiors, memorable storylines, numerous dramatic plot twists, unusually adventurous music score, and broad and epic cosmos of characters and heroic adventures.” At least they kept the atmospheric interiors.
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