A world of potential has a dark shadow cast over it as an evil witch curses Johnny Depp to give the same performance for all eternity, and it goes by the name of Bur-ton.
When did we lose Johnny Depp? It is hard to tell exactly, for he has experienced a ubiquitous position in the limelight for the last few decades, his cool cache transcending both the indie and the mainstream swooners. Yet with his recent career-defining performance in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Depp birthed Jack Sparrow onto the world, and he has been swimming in a sea of rum and swagger ever since. Following a string of poor films – beginning with the disappointing Public Enemies, the embarrassing Alice in Wonderland, the cash-grabs of The Tourist and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and the misguided The Rum Diary – we have begun to wonder if we’ve finally lost Depp for good with this eight collaboration with director Tim Burton.
In 1752, the English Collins family arrives in North America. Their industry grows so much that the seaside town of Collinsport is named after them, and young Barnabas Collins (Depp) takes over the burgeoning fishing trade. He falls in love with Josette (Bella Heathcote), but after jilting the wrong house-servant, the wicked witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), his love is killed and he is cursed to be a vampire for all eternity. Locked in a box by the townspeople, he awakens to a very changed Collinsport of 1972. Taken in by Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), the current Collins matriach, his new “family” is a ragtag group. However, when he falls in love with the current incarnation of his beloved Josette, governess Victoria (also Heathcote), he much foil Angelique if he is to hold onto his family.
Tim Burton has developed a certain gothic sameness to his last few films, even when experimenting with the CGI-heavy Alice in Wonderland or musical Sweeney Todd. To have such a recognisable voice is admirable, as so few filmmakers have an identifiable artistic niche as easily identifiable as Burton’s. Yet with Dark Shadows, Burton reaches the tipping point between signature and retread. Burton’s visuals certainly make the film engaging initially, but Seth Grahame-Smith’s debut feature screenplay drags before taking a very long walk off too short a pier. Caught somewhere between gothic horror and a groovy 1970s that never existed outside of the movies, the cliché riddled script bores where it should soar. For it isn’t the high concept, based very loosely on the 1960s/70s sopa opera of the same name, that is at fault but the execution.
Much of the script invests its strength in Depp’s performance, but even he seems to be going through the motions with familiar “fish out of water” gags. Indeed, much of the original series’ popularity came from the introduction of Barnabus Collins. While Depp is in his element, he isn’t given much to work with, to the point that even the other characters comment on how stiff an archaic he seems. This carries about a quarter of the film, but the rest of the film plays out like a greatest hits package of the rest of the original series. The mandatory inclusion of the suitably batty Helena Bonham Carter is purely perfunctory, creating a subplot that distracts from the already scatterbrained main narrative, and the increasingly woeful Chloë Moretz is just terrible. Indeed, she is only introduced for a third act reveal that is best described as silly. Only Eva Green, reconstructed by Burton to bear an uncanny resemblance to former muse Lisa Marie, brings any real life to this cold fish of a film.
At best, Dark Shadows is boring, aping other films in a misguided attempt at retro-charm, exemplified by an extended appearance by Alice Cooper. Yet there is something more sinister at play here, with Grahame-Smith and Burton failing to connect even the most basic building blocks of plot together long enough to sustain interest. In all this confusion, it is unsurprising that Bella Heathcote’s accent slips once or twice. Given his fumbling with this material, it is no wonder that the already repetitive Burton is returning to familiar turf with remakes and sequels to his own work in Frankenweenie and Beetlejuice 2.
Dark Shadows is released in Australia on 10 May 2012 from Roadshow Films. It is released in the US on 11 May 2012 from Warner.