When audiences and critics lament the poor quality of Hollywood films, especially during the summer blockbuster season, the complaint often boils down to laziness. Big budgets, pre-sold concepts with built-in audiences, and CGI special effects have made filmmakers careless. Sometimes those tools find their way into the hands of energetic creators, who use them with something approaching the inspiration and cunning of yesterday’s great directors.
And sometimes you get a half-hearted cash grab whipped up by a marketing department that figures Tim Burton + Johnny Depp = profit.
It’s difficult to convey just how lazy the new Dark Shadows movie is. The only person connected with this production who gave a damn is Eva Green, who plays Angelique, the sorceress nemesis and jilted lover of Depp’s vampire, Barnabas Collins. Green apparently sized up the elegant Tim Burton production design and decided that if nobody else was going to chew the scenery, she would devour it all herself. She’s a little too over-the-top for 99 percent of the picture to sell the pathos of her denouement, but she still comes surprisingly close to demonstrating that her character is not the hollow woman fate – and high-end special effects – make her out to be.
Depp, sadly, just slaps on some makeup and acts alternately stuffy and befuddled while waiting for his paycheck to clear. He’s done some great work with Burton in the past, and the overexposure of his Jack Sparrow character shouldn’t obscure what he was able to accomplish by dropping an out-of-this-world brilliant comedic performance into a generic pirate movie, but his rent-a-weirdo act is getting old.
The script is simply pathetic. It’s tonally confusing, more comedic in tone than the cult-classic soap opera it takes for inspiration, but not barbed enough to qualify as satire. It’s set in the 1970s, for no reason other than that the Dark Shadows TV show was made in the Seventies. It has nothing pointed or amusing to say about the era, soap operas, vampires, or Gothic horror.
Characters simply vanish as the writers lose interest in them. One character is literally invited to leave the film, right when he starts to get interesting. Subplots appear and disappear in a manner that suggests another hour of film is lying on a cutting-room floor somewhere. The character ostensibly at the heart of the centuries-long drama skips the finale entirely, strolling up for an incomprehensible epilogue that makes her seem almost like a satiric caricature of bad writing.
Angelique’s mystical powers are so ill-defined that there’s no dramatic tension surrounding her appearances – the audience can only sigh and accept that she’s capable of anything the special-effects crew feels like animating. A supernatural presence barely hinted at in the second reel appears out of nowhere to play a decisive role in the climax. An ostensibly surprising third-act revelation about a minor character had the audience in my theater frowning in annoyance. There are some funny bits, but you’ve already seen most of them in the commercials.
Because the large cast is stuffed with thin characters who have no inner life, and virtually never interact with anyone except Depp or Green once they enter the story, Dark Shadows feels simultaneously overcrowded and empty. A real soap opera would be filled with romantic entanglements and grand passions, but this story is entirely about Angelique and Barnabbas. Nobody else is entangled with anything at all.
One of the crucial failures is a mistake the younger, more enthusiastic Tim Burton never would have made: he doesn’t give us a sympathetic guide into his dark fantasy world. For a while, it seems as if the haunted governess might serve that role, or perhaps Chloe Moretz will take the position held by Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice… but the former turns out to be a vapid non-entity who couldn’t be less interesting, and Moretz is reduced to pitching a little snark at her squaresville undead ancestor before retiring to her trailer for two-thirds of the film.
We’re left with the vampire Barnabbas as both our magical outcast and focal character, which doesn’t work very well. He kills far too many innocent people to be lovable, and unlike the lonely outsiders who headlined previous Burton films, his offbeat world-view does not awaken the sleepwalking normal people he encounters. He doesn’t help a broken soul find her place in the world by guiding her through a graveyard fairyland, or bring life to dreary suburbia with his strange gifts. It doesn’t even really matter that he’s a vampire. He changes the lives of his dissolute descendents by the simple expedient of dropping a vast pile of money on them. Come to think of it, that might just qualify as the cleverest bit of satire in Dark Shadows, which was made by dropping a vast pile of money on Johnny Depp.