I’ve been critical of Tim Burton’s artistic choices over the past decade or so, taking material already marked with an inexorable aesthetic and cultural stamp to put a slight Burton refinishing on the top. With the exception of “Big Fish” (and “Corpse Bride,” I guess – but that movie was just atrocious), the last 15 years have been one big long commercial for a peculiar visionary, a selling out and a selling of the soul.
I’m not even a big fan of “Edward Scissorhands” or “Ed Wood,” Burton’s two most acclaimed movies that are renowned mainly for their originality and peculiar personality. So calling “Dark Shadows” a return to form isn’t exactly the phrase I’m looking for, because it still falls into the typical Burton pitfalls. But it’s a flash of vintage Burton, a film with winning personality and a sharp sense of macabre humor.
That’s largely due to the fact that he draws a fantastic performance out of his choice surrogate, Johnny Depp, whose been acting in a bit of a fog for the past decade. He’s not the first superstar who’s fallen victim to becoming a great imitator of himself, and he certainly won’t be the last. Save perhaps Sweeney Todd, we’ve been seeing 50 shades of Jack Sparrow for movie after movie, and that’s really selling Depp short. His delivery is deliciously deadpan, his period acting totally self-assured in “Dark Shadows,” and that alone makes for a surprising amount of fun.
Depp’s baroque sensibilities as Barnabas Collins, a wealthy heir in the early United States turned immortal vampire, are uproarious when juxtaposed with the 1970s in which he reawakens. Burton’s version of the decade, a gloriously campy nostalgic pop song, is a fantastic character in and of itself. It serves as a marvelous foil to Barnabas, unaware of just how different the times have become (and how at times they can be eerily similar).
The script does Depp and the decade a disservice by being clunky, unfocused, and a bit too dragged out. It inundates us with an ensemble – including the siren who bit Barnabas turned business rival of the Collins family (Eva Green), an austere matriarch (Michelle Pfeiffer), a moody daughter (the ubiquitous Chloe Moretz), and of course Helena Bonham Carter as … um, Helena Bonham Carter – that are never quite sure of how they fit into the story. That’s particularly true of the governess Victoria Winters (newcomer Bella Heathcote), who begins the film as a lynchpin of the plot only to disappear for nearly the entire movie. (But don’t worry, she’s back for the climax!)
I would not go as far as to call the screenplay a mere stringing together of events that holds the funny moments together, but those moments are what make the movie memorable and entertaining. Burton has still yet to make a truly great movie in my estimation, but the man sure can direct some riotous scenes. B /