Frequent collaborations between lead actors and directors are always a risky proposition. For every De Niro-Scorsese, there’s a Sandler-Dugan. Even when the collaboration is working, at some point both parties have to step back and question if they are working together to make great movies or if they are working together because it’s comfortable. For Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, that point is Dark Shadows.
In the mid-1700s, the son of a wealthy Maine fishing magnate, Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), scorned the wrong woman, a young housekeeper named Angelique (Eva Green). Angelique, it turned out, was a witch and as a form of revenge, she destroys everything Barnabas loves, curses him to be a vampire, and then gets the townspeople to bury him in a coffin on the outskirts of town. 200 years later, Barnabas is unearthed by an unsuspecting construction crew and he returns home to find that his descendants have been reduced to only four dysfunctional members and their business has been all but obliterated by a rival company run by none other than Angelique. Seeking revenge and a way around his curse, Barnabas undertakes the task of returning the Collins name to prosperity while coming closer and closer to a woman (Bella Heathcote) who resembles his lost love.
On virtually every level, Dark Shadows is a failure. The few laughs that come along with Johnny Depp being Johnny Depp are often cheap and half-hearted, as if they were stumbled across accidentally. Every performance outside of Depp’s marginally effective turn ranges from below average (Jackie Earle Haley) to overdone (Chloe Grace Moretz) and even all the way out to full-on depressing (Michelle Pfeiffer). Honestly, Pfeiffer and Helena Bonham Carter both present their characters with a level of devotion usually reserved for those “$1 million for one scene” roles like Marlon Brando was rumored to get at the end of his career. The script, however, is substantially worse, continually presenting the audience with lackluster dialogue and BRUTALLY BAD plot points. The overall structure of Dark Shadows is equally bad, leaving me to wonder if this was some sort of passion project for a bedridden youth whom Burton took pity on. It is an absolute mess but worse still, it is a lazy mess.
Dark Shadows is a perfect example of what happens when a filmmaker becomes complacent and stops taking chances. There is a decisive lack of the trademarked “Burton Magic” that makes films like Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and even Big Fish such enjoyable endeavors. Instead, Dark Shadows plays like someone imitating Burton. Even the darker elements, which Burton usually does so well, are so bland as to come off as borderline kitschy in the worst way possible. Worse yet, Burton’s boring and stupid film brings Depp down to that same fat cat level of complacency, miring one of the industry’s best actors in a role that has no more ambitions than to simply exist. It isn’t a bad performance and whatever good that can be taken from Dark Shadows is there because of Depp and Depp alone but it is so perfunctory that I found myself questioning whether Depp would have taken the role if it wasn’t being offered by his pal Burton. Unfortunately, this is what comes with comfort: instead of pushing themselves to achieve more, Burton and Depp have chosen to make bad movies together rather than good movies apart. In essence, there’s no difference between Burton and Depp making Dark Shadows and Michael Bay’s next blockbuster, except Bay is at least honest about the sort of movie he’s trying to make.
I’ve never seen an episode of any of the various Dark Shadows television series’ so I won’t speak to its merits in terms of whether or not it held to the tone of the show. I will say that if this is in keeping with the show, I have no idea why it was made into a movie in the first place. I was more irritated, even offended, by this movie than I have been in a long time simply because talents like Burton and Depp should not be wasted on terrible productions like this one. Dark Shadows is pointless, brainless, and worst of all ambitionless and manages to make two hours seem like a week and a half as it wallows in the apathy of going through the motions.