Dark Shadows: Tim Burton-Johnny Depp’s Weakest Collaboration?

“Dark Shadows,” the eighth teaming of the visually inventive director Tim Burton and the eccentric star Johnny Depp is a movie of singular touches and beautiful moments. Unfortunately, it’s also a movie in which the often-stunning images, set-pieces and special effects seldom congeal into a coherent narrative that’s involving on any level, emotionally or intellectually.


Likely to divide critics, “Dark Shadows” also has the misfortune of being released just one week (on May 11) after “Marvel’s The Avengers,” which broke all-time records on its opening weekend ($207 million in the U.S. alone) and will continue to ride strong at the box-office in its second session.

It’s hard to think of a collaboration between a filmmaker and an actor in recent times that has produced such a rich and diverse output as the films made by Burton and Depp. They include the lyrical fable “Edward Scissorhands” (one of my favorites), the lovely biopic “Ed Wood,” the gothic horror “Sleepy Hollow,” the opera “Sweeney Todd,” and most recently the fairytale “Alice in Wonderland.”

At this point in history, the Burton-Depp team has surpassed other famous director-actor collaborations. Even Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro have not made so many films together, though arguably their first works together—sort of a trilogy—“Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” and “Raging Bull,” represent the very best features in their long, respective careers.

The role of vampire Barnabas Collins was conceived by Dan Curtis and famously originated by Jonathan Frid. Introduced almost a full year after the series’ debut, in 1966, the character quickly caused the ratings to soar and came to define the show. However, in adapting to the big-screen Dan Curtis cult TV series, which ran for five years, Burton and his writers, Seth Grahame-Smith and John August, have opted for a visual spectacle that may be too episodic, fractured, and fragmented for its own good, and far less less character-driven.

For the first time in a Burton picture, it’s the women who make a stronger impression, and what an awesome group they are: Michelle Pfeiffer (in a comeback performance), Eva Green, Helena Bonham Carter (Burton’s real-life companion), to mention the more vet performers, and then there are some excellent young women.

The tale’s shifting time periods are well handled by Burton. When the story begins, circa 1750, Joshua and Naomi Collins, along with their young son Barnabas, leave England to start a new life in America. Upon arrival, adopting the American Dream to the fullest, they begin building a fishing empire in a coastal Maine town, which later bears their name: Collinsport.

Two decades later, Barnabas (now played by Johnny Depp), the new master of Collinwood Manor, is a rich and powerful playboy. When he falls in love with the beautiful Josette DuPres (Bella Heathcote), it simply breaks the heart of Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), a spiteful witch. In retaliation, Angelique turns Barnabas into a vampire, before burying him alive.

Cut to two centuries later, when Barnabas, freed from his tomb by peculiar, inadvertent circumstances, steps right into 1972, a new, strange, unfamiliar reality for him. First thing in order is to return home. To his chagrin, he finds that the grand, lush estate of Collinwood Manor is now in a state of ruin, both physically and in terms of its bizarre personnel, the remnant inhabitants.

For one thing, the reign is now matriarchy, headed by Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), who becomes the only person Barnabas trusts to the point revealing his identity.

However, the other residents are not so easily smitten or taken by Barnabas and his odd, out of place and out of time behavior which has been Depp’s specialty as an actor from the very start). This is particularly the case of the live-in psychiatrist, Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), who becomes suspicious of every word he makes and every step he takes.

Both passionate and obsessive in his goal to restore the former reputation of his family, Barnabas has to overcome a number of obstacles, including Collinsport’s leading denizen, Angie, whose identity and past are veiled in great mystery.

The first half of the story covers the main plot points and, as such, is more interesting. In the second part, ”Dark Shadows” settles into a more conventional horror tale, one laced with dark humor, and largely confined to one setting. The other residents in what could be described as a haunting and haunted mansion include Elizabeth’s ne’er-do-well brother Roger Collins, (Jonny Lee Miller); her rebellious teenage daughter Carolyn Stoddard (Chloë Grace Moretz, who was so good in “Hugo”); and Roger’s precocious 10-year-old son, David Collins (Gully McGrath). Then there are the caretaker of Collinwood Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley), and David’s nanny, Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), who is the mirror image of Barnabas’ true love, Josette.

One of the film’s problems is its inability to shock and provoke, or even sustain a dark tone of horror and mystery. Times have changed radically since the late 1960s, when the original show broke the mold of daytime TV, and in the process shook up American pop culture with its unique blend of gothic mystery, romance and melodrama.

Burton still works with greater freedom of imagination than most Hollywood directors, but as his recent work has shown, Dark Shadows lack the more sustained narrative drive that his earlier films had.

And he begins to repeat himself, even visually. We can’t help but notice the recurrent elements of his style: The cartoonish zest of his strategy, the cool purple light, the black-on-black compositions, the sinister carnival-like atmosphere, the pain and awkwardness of the outsider who just cannot fit in.

Finally a word about the iconic, immensely gifted star Johnny Depp. As much as I disliked “The Tourist,” it was refreshing to see Depp in a more natural and naturalistic way: not as a pirate, not with a fake nose, not with an eye-patch, not with heavy make-up or sporting excessive accent. For Depp, just as for Burton, “Dark Shadows” is deja vue.

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