Dark Shadows (2012) – Directed by Tim Burton – Starring Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Jackie Earle Haley, Jonny Lee Miller, Chloë Grace Moretz, Bella Heathcote, Christopher Lee, and Alice Cooper.
“These people might be freaks and weirdos, but don’t freak and weirdos deserve to be happy, too?”
That quote does not come from DARK SHADOWS, which takes the title for being the worst Tim Burton movie made to date, but rather from Derrick Ferguson on the Better in the Dark #129 podcast. In episode #129, Derrick and Tom Deja hold a Director’s Court on the career of Tim Burton. (And if you like Burton, or movies, or good conversation, you should be listening to the BITD podcast; I’m listening to #129 right now as I write this review.) They released this episode back prior to the release of DARK SHADOWS so they don’t discuss this latest Burton/Depp team-up but it’s all the better they don’t because DARK SHADOWS is as bad a movie as a major talent like Tim Burton could ever hope to release.
At the end of the film, Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote) has been turned into a vampire by Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp). He calls her Victoria and she corrects him, telling him her name is, “Josette,” which was the name of the original love of Barnabas’ life, who looks just like Maggie Evans, which is Victoria Winters’ real name. The person I saw the movie with asked me if we were supposed to think Victoria had become Josette, or if she had always been Josette.
I don’t care.
I don’t. DARK SHADOWS is brutal, awful, bad film making. If it was just a bad movie, I wouldn’t freak out because bad movies happen all the time. What’s unforgivable about SHADOWS is that it’s a poorly made film and a director with all of Burton’s talent should not be making fundamentally flawed movies. He can make bad movies but not poorly made ones, and DARK SHADOWS has so many problems that I felt like Burton turned in his film and then someone who hates him re-cut it to make it as stupid as possible.
There are problems with tone and narrative here, and I’ll start with tone.
DARK SHADOWS has no idea what it wants to be. It’s ostensibly a horror-comedy, but it’s neither scary nor funny. Really, it’s a bad comedy because there’s very little attempt to do anything horror-related, at all, beyond the “mob captures the monster at his castle” sequence early in the film. There’s an attempt to have a love plot going on, but it’s barely touched upon and it’s given lip service instead of active proof. Barnabas falls in love with Victoria because she looks like Josette.
He has much more passion with Angelique (Eva Green), even though he doesn’t love her. Heck, he has more passion with Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) than he has with Victoria, which isn’t a bad thing because Victoria looks like she’s 16.
Right, so I’m now listening to the portion of the BITD podcast where they touch on the unseen DARK SHADOWS and Tom Deja makes the point that Johnny Depp’s Barnabas looks like (based on the TV commercials) it’s another role where Depp’s conception of the character is all artifice. Without seeing the movie, Tom has rather nailed it, but the artifice critique really applies to the whole film – you know, except for the actually being clever part. Things just happen here and then disappear and you get the feeling they just happen because they make a good scene or have a good visual and not because they add to the film’s narrative. There’s no consistency here, in feel or story.
For instance, the movie opens two centuries ago and we get the whole back story of Barnabas not being in love with Angelique, and Angelique actually being a witch, and casting spells that sends his real love off a cliff. She curses him with becoming a vampire and then turns the town against him, sticking him in a coffin. Great.
We cut to the present and spend a good amount of time introducing Maggie Evans/Victoria Winters in 1972. First, she’s on a train, then she gets a ride from some hippies, then she ends up at Collinwood where she gets hired to play governess to David Collins, a young kid who thinks he can talk to his dead mom. Pretty clearly, the film has set up Barnabas and Victoria to be the two leads of the film because it’s taken all this time introducing them.
It’s rather curious, then, when Victoria then proceeds to largely disappear from the film for huge chunks of time.
The love story is never really developed; they’re both drawn to each other and that’s apparently all the film has to say about love.
And that’s where the film falters in terms of character. Barnabas is a monster, but not because he’s a vampire with a pale look, but because (in the past) he’s screwing Angelique without being in love with her. Angelique’s rage is lit when she tells Barnabas she wants to hear that he loves her, but Barnabas refuses, and says that wouldn’t be true. Now, that alone doesn’t make him a monster because lots of guys sleep with women they don’t love, but when you add in the fact that Barnabas lives in the house and Angelique works there as an employee of the family, things get a bit trickier.
Still, not wholly a bad guy at this point. But cut to the present where he falls in love with Victoria, and then proceeds to have sex with Dr. Hoffman and Angelique on the side. He slaughters the workers who free him from his coffin and the hippies who help him understand the contemporary world, but the film treats these events as coldly as Barnabas does. At the end of the film, Barnabas tells Angelique that her curse is that she’s incapable of love, but she’s not. Her love is misguided, but there’s no indication at all that Angelique was anything but in love with Barnabas back in the 18th century. Her problem isn’t that she cannot love, but that she cannot move on from who she believes to be her one, true love.
Think back to Derrick’s quote up at the top of this review. He perfectly encapsulates the heart of Tim Burton’s movies, but there’s no heart in DARK SHADOWS. The Collins’ family endures, but there’s no sense of family here. The mom (Michelle Pfeiffer) is the hard matriarch overseeing the downfall of the family business. Her brother (Jonny Lee Miller) is a letch, who eyes the newly arrived Victoria like a piece of meat to be humped, but then never, ever talks to her. Mom’s daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz) is an angry, isolated teen who wants to run away. And the brother’s son (Gulliver McGrath) talks to his dead mom and no one believes him. They are dysfunctional and the film ultimately tries to bind them through their supernatural abilities: David talks to the dead, Barnabas is a vampire, and Carolyn is a werewolf (which comes out of nowhere), and Michelle Pfeiffer is, um, a mom?
DARK SHADOWS tries to draw a line about who’s the actual monster because David’s father chooses to leave Collinwood with a huge sum of cash instead of acting like David’s dad, but the film hasn’t taken the time to make them seem like real people, so I don’t care.
Carolyn’s status as a werewolf is a good example of things just happening. It comes out of nowhere, which is just as bad as things going nowhere. When Barnabas returns, he decides he’s going to restore the family’s business to its former glory. So he goes and hypnotizes Christopher Lee and then they have a ceremony where they open the factory and then … nada. The next time the cannery plays any role in the film of note is when Angelique blows it up.
The film probably should have set itself up as a total Barnabas vs. Angelique film because that’s where the film clearly wants to go. Eva Green is her usual gorgeous self (I have a fondness for black boots and she rocks that look deliciously) and her character provides the wildness to counter Barnabas’ bland exterior. That whole opening sequence with Victoria is time they should have spent with Angelique.
DARK SHADOWS has two positive things going for it. The first is the look of the town, which is fantastic. The second is the mid-film appearance by Alice Cooper an the use of my favorite Cooper song of all time (which is also one of my favorite overall songs of all time), “Ballad of Dwight Fry.” The song integrates wonderfully with the story during this sequence (including Carolyn speaking the little girl’s part of the song) and gives the film some much needed life, and is the only real evidence of any ingenuity from the film makers.
The theater I saw the movie in actually had a decent crowd, but there were no rumblings of approval on the way out the door. People shuffled out either complaining about the film or silently, shuffling back to the light like disappointed zombies. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have both made bad movies in the past, but this time around they failed at the simplest aspects of storytelling.
Simply put, DARK SHADOWS is a poorly made movie, and the worst of Tim Burton’s long, illustrious career.