The long and storied collaboration of director Tim Burton and Johnny Depp has given the world movies like Edward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hollow, films in which Burton’s quirky gothic sensibilities charm. They have, however, also given us Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland, films that tried too hard to bring the same macabre magic and largely failed.
Thus Dark Shadows, opening Friday, is poised to answer the question: Can they still shock and charm or is the magic played out?
The premise is straight Depp-Burton. After being imprisoned in a coffin for two hundred years, vampire Barnabas Collins returns to his dilapidated castle and equally diminished family. A former upright pillar of the Colonial Era, Barnabas finds himself surrounded by hippies and libbers in 1972 Maine. Plus, they have this devil’s tool called “electricity.”
His family turns out to be a better dressed version of the Aadams family, all creepy in their own unique ways. Matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) keeps the family fishing business – excuse us for this pun– afloat. She raises her surly daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Mortez) alone. Elizabeth’s brother Roger (Johnny Lee Miller) also has a child, although he can’t be bothered with fathering him. Little David (Gulliver McGrath) is so distraught over his mother’s death that he still sees her and talks to her. Elizabeth has brought in drunken psychiatrist Hoffman (Helena Bodham Carter) to cure him, but the only one who truly understands him is the new governess Victoria Winters, played by Bella Heathcote, whose name sounds like a gothic character in itself.
You see, Victoria sees ghosts too, specifically Barnabas’s lost 18th century love who threw herself off a cliff under a spell, a ghost whom Victoria greatly resembles.
The whole troop knocks around a huge gothic mansion that practically screams secret passageways, mournful spirits, and bleeding walls. It’s one of those charming castles chuck full of paintings of grumpy ancestors and suits of armor you’d swear just moved. The Collins family must have gotten a good deal on the land because the non-blessed home teeters on the edge of an impossibly high cliff towering over a perpetually stormy ocean, the kind of precipice distraught lovers like to cast themselves down.
Before Barnabas can sell the pile of rocks and move everyone to a nice, sensible track home in the suburbs with better light, he must revive the Collins fishing empire and deal with Angelique, the long-lived witch (Eva Green) who destroyed them and turned him to a vampire in a jealous rage.
The movie starts fun, with a vampire-out-of-coffin motif that Depp pulls off well. As a car approaches him, headlights on at night, he prepares himself for an encounter with the lit, fast moving demon he supposes it must be. That it passes with a shouted insult and squealing of tires does nothing to calm his confusion. The golden arches of McDonalds must be a revelation from Heaven and his mini-skirt clad great-niece can only be a woman of the night.
There’s a particularly satisfying scene in which Barnabas powwows with a flock of hippies in altered states of consciousness. As he tells his tale of being in a box contemplating love for two hundred years, they delightfully take it as cosmic truth, man.
Sadly, the film moves on from this humor. It can’t decide if it wants to be a dark comedy or a quirky horror tale and thus alternates between the two. Ultimately, it abandons the humor for plot and creepiness, none of which is surprising, startling, or scary. When blood does start coming from those ancient walls, it is just as you expect.
The excellent supporting cast is wasted for the most part. Characters come and go with no apparent contribution to the film. This may result from adapting a 1960s TV series that surely had room for more characters.
Rated PG-13, the film has many supernatural elements and events, including ghosts and witches. There is a supernatural sex scene which is violent, humorous, and fully shown but without nudity. There are several instances of drug use (marijuana) and smoking and lots of language. Quite a few murders and other violence are shown, although not in gory ways. None of these things are cranked up to the level of an R rated movie, but are high for a PG-13 movie.
Alas, the film has nothing in particular to say. While it draws humor from the premise, it doesn’t comment on differences between our past and our present or on the enduring problems of the human condition. Burton and Depp are at their best when they make you love an odd outsider like Edward Scissorhands. Although we laugh at Barnabas Collins, we do not feel his pain or learn from his predicament.
And that is the biggest disappointment of all.