(Tim Burton, 2012, USA)
Crawling back to cinema screens after his shambolic Alice in Wonderland (2010) saw him effectively selling whatever idiosyncratic voice he had left to the commercial mechanisms of Disney, Tim Burton turns his evidently weary attentions to adapting the dusty supernatural soap opera of the same name for the big screen, to shabby results.
Playing Barnabas Collins, a vampire imprisoned in a coffin for centuries, Johnny Depp heads the cast of this romp through seventies kitsch and disco ball nostalgia, a premise that sees Collins re-establishing his stake in a world that has long passed him by and a family vaguely acquainted with his legacy. In what seems like a perfect, if overly obvious, match, with the show’s gothic veneer suiting Burton’s sustained guise as a purveyor of spindly, nightmarish tales of interlopers and ghostly entities, Dark Shadows plays like a tour guide through his filmography but without a satisfying pay off, a passively manufactured careening of everything the director once stood for and revelled in. The ingredients are all present and correct, specifically the wondrous and diverse visual palette and that imitable theme of the peculiar outsider realising their grounding in the world is founded on love and companionship, yet amongst a stellar cast and another high production budget Burton forgets to include his own voice in the creaky proceedings.
Combining long-time stalwarts Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter, whose characters they effortlessly slot in to, with a variety of serviceable big names, Burton’s latest has at least a heart that thumps with good intentions and at the most a cast list to die for, but it all seamlessly falls by the wayside once its lustre quickly wears thin. Perhaps its finest component is a well observed and mostly well timed sense of humour, with as much comedy wrung out of the fish out of water gambit as possible. For instance, when describing the squareness of her brother’s new nanny, moody teenager Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz) pointedly remarks that she is most definitely a “Carpenters chick”, to which Barnabas enquires “Do you mean to say she has a penchant for woodworkers?”. A witty exchange, and one of many that are upheld but ultimately underscored by a lack of focus. It is frequently said how difficult comedy horror is to pull off, as the end product usually appears inherently lopsided, and Dark Shadows does little to buck the trend, instead veering into broadly kinky directions that are as unexpected as they are awkwardly handled.
Similarly underserved are the film’s characters, which are given very few opportunities to shine before being pushed to the margins. As a filmmaker Burton has rarely displayed a knack for juggling the supporting players that orbit around the protagonist, save for perhaps his additions to the Batman franchise, and here he is useless at balancing them all together. Ultimately, basing a film on a long running television show requires a certain amount of compression, yet Burton’s Dark Shadows precedes by introducing and fazing out characters in arrogant abandon, appearing to treat this as the first in a supposed franchise that is barely warranted, or even particularly sought after. Displaying a customary mash of vivid mise en scene, Burton’s latest looks the part but is unable to surpass its atmosphere as a throwaway jaunt that hints at the director becoming prey to a lack of ingenuity.