All words: Alan Pyke
Enjoy Johnny Depp as a pirate king? Dig Tim Burton at his campiest? You’ll probably love DARK SHADOWS. It moves through its major exposition in a tight five minutes. Depp’s Barnabas Collins is scion to an English fishing empire which built up a Maine town around its New World business, but he chose the wrong lovely servant (Eva Green as Angelique) to spurn and she uses her witchcraft to kill his beloved, turn him into a vampire, and lock him in a coffin for 200 years.
Alas, that economy of storytelling doesn’t last, and at two hours the movie still feels about 20 minutes too long. After awakening Depp’s dapper vamp in 1972, it bounces along from one Man Out Of Time Who Is Also Johnny Depp gag to the next. Most are winners, spun around the charming befuddlement and half-stoned dignity that made the PIRATES character such a hit, but too many are obvious clunkers that take too long and tip their hands too early. It’s all high camp, though, so some forgiveness is in order. And it hits the Burton sweet spots: Creepy, massively detailed and decrepit mansion? Check! Zooming, CGI-laden shots of mood-setting scenery? Check! Eccentricity as high as possible? Check. Add Helena Bonham Carter to taste.
Even if the beats are predictable, it’s mostly a blast to watch Antiquated Diction Johnny Depp Vampire alternately fit in and stand out in ’70s Maine. There’s the easy hypnosis of Jackie Earle Haley‘s Willie the groundskeeper, and the more difficult winning over of Michelle Pfeiffer‘s downtrodden matriarch. There are also some great pop culture gags: Collins assumes the glowing M logo of a McDonald’s is an incarnation of the devil himself, and he looks pretty well at home as a showing of SUPERFLY lets out onto the fake town’s main drag. They use music appropriately, and Danny Elfman’s score is wonderful at injecting tension into dramatic moments that would otherwise feel slack. The scenes that rely on Seth Grahame-Smith‘s well-worked dialogue are strongest.
The movie ‘s also gorgeous to look at. It’s a perfect story for Burton’s visual sensibility, and he creates a place on the shore of Maine that’s at once theatrical and realistic. The camera all but caresses the banisters and mantlepieces and railings of the Collinwood manor, the details of which are beautifully built. The characters’ jaunts into Collinsport or up Widows’ Hill provide a backdrop that’s as convincing as it is convenient: they’re there only as much as the central story requires it, but the settings are vibrant and busy when called upon.
So what makes DARK SHADOWS drag? The biggest problem is the relationship at the story’s center – Barnabas and Angelique as nemeses – is the least interesting and least funny in the flick. But Burton also crams in more horribly mistreated, misunderstood, and abandoned children than he needs. (It’s as though he’s clinging to some world record in that particular narrative category, worried his lifetime average will slip.) The montage of Depp putting the family’s affairs in order is another weak moment that distracts from the fun, which is mostly in watching him play off the handful of Burtonized stock characters that populate the run-down manor of Collinwood. Judging by the laughs in the room, though, it will probably please the diehard fans of the ABC series from which the script was adapted.
Free from the expectations of that show’s devotees, it was easy to enjoy the characters that populate the manor. Chloë Grace Moretz, most recognizable from Kick-Ass, is great as the trapped teenager with the record collection and the attitude. Pfeiffer does better than alright with the few moments she gets, and Bonham Carter’s boozy psychiatrist is pitch-perfect. Again, the problem is we get too little of each of these players, and more than enough Eva Green – who isn’t bad per se, but trapped in the dull role of single-minded vengeance witch Angelique.
At its best, DARK SHADOWS is a playfully written showcase for Depp’s delivery and facial tics. At worst, it’s slapstick too dull for the grand gloom Burton always conjures so well. In the end, it’s more likely to gratify existing Burton fans than create new ones.