Say you pick up a shovel, and with this shovel, you begin to dig a hole. At first, this task requires great effort and physical exertion, requiring great concentration, passion even. You continue to hammer away in its pursuit. But after a while, you are no longer digging the hole to dig the hole, or even facing great difficulty in it anymore. You are digging the hole for the sake of itself. Herein lies the tragedy of Tim Burton’s career.
A proud promoter in his three-decade filmography of the strange and the gothic, Burton has always garnered my respect for his refusal to compromise his vision and integrity, whatever it may be. He’s not an artist in pursuit of theme or message, so much as rhythm and character. But this de-emphasis on confined storytelling has swollen to nightmarish proportions with Burton’s last two films, 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland” and the subject of the paragraphs subsequent: “Dark Shadows”.
With this duo, Burton’s concern for storytelling has gone right out of the window, replaced instead with an overriding desire to make the characters sound goofy and the sets look poppy. Thankfully, the characters sound goofy and the sets look poppy. Burton seems to have no desire to tell a coherent story, marked with organic people wielding motivations and subtleties. Most oddly of all he has no desire to round out Barnabas Collins, the protagonist played by Johnny Depp, whose passion for the source-material ’60s soap opera is what drove the film into production anyway.
Barnabas is an 18th-century gentleman, among many who have come to the New World in pursuit of wealth and love. He has securely found both, but in accomplishing the latter, he angers a witch, Angelique, who madly lusts for Barnabas. Angelique condemns him to two centuries in a coffin, emerging as a vampire into the radical, unstable time that is 1972. His once-prosperous fish-canning business has lost its luster, his expansive Maine mansion is now occupied only by his (thoroughly dysfunctional) family, and Angelique, still around, is adored by the town. Collins clearly has his work cut out for him. His lust for Victoria, a new housemaid eerily resembling his fallen wife 200 years prior, is another factor.
Burton certainly conveys the story here, he simply does nothing with that story. Watching the film bob from scene to scene carries about as much emotional impact as it would have, had I simply read the film’s Wikipedia summary and called it a day. So far as the supporting cast, there’s a very lively group here (Michelle Pfieffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Jackie Earle Haley, the best young actress of this generation, Chloe Moretz) but “Dark Shadows” simply has no humanistic, organic use for them. They’re here to show up in a handful of scenes and deliver bizarre one-liners that, instead of driving the characters forward, serve as perhaps the film’s only narrative momentum. Moretz in particular, on a hot-streak if there’s ever been one, disappoints, caving finally into the “angry teenager” archetype she’s done so well at avoiding thus far in her career.
Perhaps the greatest crime of “Dark Shadows” is its inability to render Johnny Depp, one of the most elastic, evocative actors we have, as a one-dimensional caricature. It’s a trend that’s been occurring with disturbing frequency lately (his track record lately, with “The Tourist”, the new “Pirates of the Caribbean” flick, as well as the aforementioned “Alice in Wonderland” reboot), but Johnny Depp just isn’t being used properly. The fact that this is what Tim Burton opted to get out of him, after eight collaborative efforts together, is a shock. Depp’s character, Barnabas, is very simply, not likable. He’s a cut-and-paste mishmash from other, better Depp characters, save for the sense of personality and morality we got from those guys. Collins, a vampire, is prone to slaughtering a dozen civilians at a time, a fact conveniently overlooked by the film in the pursuit of finding a cut-and-dry “good guy”. I’m not buying it.
With “Dark Shadows”, Tim Burton, a man whose early-to-middle work has haunted my cinematic psyche since the first time I viewed “Edward Scissorhands” as a six-year-old, may have finally lost the essence that infused even his bloodiest, quirkiest films with humanity and depth. “Dark Shadows” is a $150 million declaration that even the best of us run out of ideas eventually. D