Forget American Dream this is the sixties/seventies flashback that the US has been thinking about late at night; Johnny Depp as a dapper vamp, vampire that is. But is it really? The film plays fast and loose with it’s mythology, Depp’s Barnabus being transformed by the fall off a cliff, or an ancient curse or…something. Screw the specifics seems to be the films battle call as to be honest it plays fast and loose with basically every element of its story. History, plot, tone and focus flicker to and fro like waves breaking in Colinstown’s bay, each scene rewriting or retconning the one that came before, anything to allow Burton his radical style. Shallow, inconsistent, inconceivable and impossibly proud of it, Dark Shadows evokes impeccably the soap operas of old, only why would you want to?
Admittedly there is something of a promising premise hidden in here somewhere – otherwise why would I have seen it? -and Burton can be a brilliant director -something the constant callouts to Big Fish unfortunately reminded me of – but this is far from his best work; to be honest he appears an auteur stuck in automatic, phoning it in via speed dial. Yes the film still looks fantastic, the visuals ranging from inventive to incendiary, but though this is only one of the directors jobs it seems to be the only one that he still cares about. If film were a sport I would recommend re-raking Tim to the local league, put him on set design or costume supervision and maybe he will re-gain the drive he no longer needs as king of the teen girl world.
If I were to compliment the man again, and I could certainly write this review without doing so, it would be by saying that my last statement will soon no longer be true, but that doesn’t seem at this stage like an indictment. Given how staid and static the mans work has now become it would be easy to imagine him becoming outdated, his audience outgrowing him, but if nothing else Shadows shows that he knows hot to grow with them, the audience for this film is an older one than Alice and the others that came before. The film has sex and it is sordid and real rather than romanticized, it also features mature themes and even mature actresses – with wrinkles! – something those teen girls with low self esteem would never have abided in the past. I wonder though if he maybe hasn’t overshot the mark, for the members of the audience who applauded the most were those women closest to death. Burton has effectively made a film for those women who still watch soaps.
The script is so similar to those first serialized shows that it even starts with a “previously on…”, opening with an introductory montage that attempts to explain the plot of the film in advance. From there we are introduced to a young woman who appears to be our POV, our entrance point to this long established and largely ludicrous family unit, and these scenes are almost strong, or at least they are intriguing. The characters we are introduced to with her are strange and secretive, their truths hinted at via some frame-based foreshadowing so heavy that it resembles a cliffhanger. However as soon as Barnabus is reborn his role eats the scenery and story alike an when he does the film falls apart and our protagonist is abandoned, only to be seen again afterwards as an occasional romantic interest.
Depp is without a doubt dynamic on the big screen, his presence the most fascinating in the film, but his school can’t stand alone, it can’t hold up a title singlehandedly and that is what Burton inadvertently asks it too when he drops all of the other characters and concepts to simply follow his favorite actors antics; Burton’s become too much of a fan of the man that he is supposed to stand as master of and that’s a real shame. I wonder whether the original script was structured anything like the final film is given that it was written well before the casting and what the writer thinks of this title now that it is finished.
Look, this has turned into a bit of a personal assault but it is one that comes out of disappointment more than anything else, this could have been a family drama with a difference before Burton got his hands on it but now… Well it’s really not worth watching. The characters are compelling but basically all bar Barnabus are ignored and even then they exist only in relation to him ( yes that sounds standard, but see the film and you’ll see what I mean) and he exists only as a vessel for Depp to do funny things in, there are as many flat jokes as there are funny ones and for every amazing shot there is some technical work that looks like it belongs on a soap ( that sex scene is terribly edited, as are many of the movies moments) so I wouldn’t bother walking outside for this one; spare the sun, just stay in the coffin instead and hope that this pair can redeem themselves before they join you there.