The Tim Burton/Johnny Depp/Helena Bonham-Carter ménage à trois has been rumbling on for some time now. Since 2005, they have collaborated on five movies. Depp and Burton have worked together eight times since Edward Scissorhands in 1990, while Helena Bonham Carter has appeared in seven Burton films. After that amount of time, even the most solid of relationships start to get a bit tired; lose some of their spark. Dark Shadows isn’t the first sign of trouble in this gothic marriage – but it’s the clearest yet.
In true Burton style, Dark Shadows is a fairytale for grown ups; a visual treat packed with special effects as stunning as Burton’s lovingly crafted gothic sets. Loosely based on the late-1960s soap opera of the same name, Burton weaves an absurd melodrama into this tale of vampires and ghouls.
Unfortunately, he’s let down by an uninspiring, rather misogynistic plot. Eva Green plays the ultimate psycho ex-girlfriend who can’t stand being rejected and decides to destroy her former lover’s life (or, in this case, un-life). Green, all quivering bosoms and impossibly pouty lips, is convincingly crazy but somewhat limited by a script that essentially paints her as Cruella de Vil with a boob job.
Of course, it isn’t really about Green; it’s all about Johnny Depp, who plays Barnabas Collins, a reluctant vampire who has spent the last 200 years buried alive (well, alive-ish). Some of the best moments come from Collins’ fish-out-of-water attempts to come to terms with the 20th century (the film is set in 1972, the year after the original series wrapped up). Barnabas prodding his claws at a game of Operation or smoking a joint with a group of hippies could easily have felt cheap, but Depp’s studied kookiness is still captivating, even though you get the impression he’s cruising a bit.
The central problem is that Dark Shadows feels like it’s been made by a man given carte blanche to do whatever he feels like. “I want Alice Cooper singing in a straight jacket”, “I want Michelle Pfeiffer with a shotgun”, “I want more blood and vomit and slime and ghosts and fire. More, more, more!” If he’s not careful, Burton will become to kooky what Michael Bay is to explosions.
With all of this going on, he also strives to keep alive the basic premise of the original series, which results in some jarringly underdeveloped threads, including a major revelation about a central character, thrown into the mix during the climactic finale.
The ending hints strongly at a sequel: it will have to do better than this.
First published in City A.M.