Burton wallows in the ‘Shadows’
May 17, 2012
“Dark Shadows” stars Johnny Depp, director Tim Burton’s omnipresent muse. The actor gamely embraces the least flattering look of his career to portray pasty-faced Barnabas Collins, a character from a gothic soap that fascinated Depp during his youth.
In the 1700s, the wealthy Collins family moves to Maine, where they establish a local fishing empire, build a large estate, and young Barnabas Collins spurns the affections of local witch Angelique (Eva Green). Her three-pronged revenge is to first kill Josette (the woman Barnabas loves), then to transform Barnabas into a vampire, and finally to padlock him inside a coffin buried deep in an unmarked grave.
Two hundred years later, in 1972, an unfortunate construction crew unearths the coffin and releases Barnabas, whose initial need for blood is unquenchable. Burton’s approach to the feeding frenzy leads the film awry as he tries to get laughs from frenetically paced, off-camera kills, momentarily pausing so that Barnabas can announce, “I’m exceedingly thirsty.”
Burton hits his stride when the fish-out-water-vampire is confronted by automobiles, architecture and fashion beyond his understanding and assumes he has landed in some special kind of hell. This portion of the story is all-too-brief because, beyond our understanding, Barnabas quickly makes his way to Collinwood Manor, where he finds his estate and fishing empire have fallen on hard times.
A subplot follows his involvement with the manor’s occupants. They are: matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her insolent daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), Elizabeth’s ne’er-do-well brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), and Roger’s motherless, 10-year-old son David (Gully McGrath). Elizabeth houses David’s tippling psychiatrist, Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), and Collinwood’s chief bottle-washer/caretaker Willie (Jackie Earle Haley). Last, but not least, Barnabas takes a shine to the newly arrived nanny, Victoria, a ringer for his lost Josette.
Soon enough, Barnabas discovers that his fishing empire has been ruined by none other than Angelique, who has brought his family low without breaking a nail or aging a minute. Angelique offers to forgive and forget Barnabas’s past transgressions in exchange for his pledge of fidelity – but he only has eyes for Victoria.
Though melodramatic and under-budgeted, the television show attempted to create an atmosphere of supernatural danger, casting Barnabas as something of a vampire Don Juan, and women as his conflicted pawns. Burton opts for the same tone as the lightweight music of the era played on his soundtrack, hoping that Barnabas’s pursuit of young Victoria, will create tension. Their chaste, emotion-free romance is instantly forgettable.
Depp portrays Burton’s vision of Barnabas with his signature style, but in contrast to the debonair Jonathan Frid of the gothic soap, Depp resembles a “Beetle Juiced” Addams Family member. Green’s one-dimensional Angelique might as well tattoo “I’m evil” on her forehead, while Pfeiffer’s Elizabeth plays straightman to a host of underdeveloped kooks. Burton’s wife, Carter, fares best in a secondary role, making the most of her brief turn as the crazy shrink with aspirations of immortality.
Burton’s films work best when laid out as visual buffets that depict eccentric people doing nutty things. This time, his vision, played against a pallet of dark, gloomy interiors, escapes him. There’s much to look at, but little penetrates the “Dark Shadows.”