One of the highest compliments you can pay a filmmaker is that they have a style so distinctive that one can identify their work without being told whose it is. Tim Burton is one such director, and as problematic as his films have been in the past decade or so it’s always refreshing to see a unique voice at work when so many mainstream films can feel anonymous and mass produced. The problem with his last few films is that they’ve mostly felt like empty and calculated exercises in which he employs his style in service of a well-known property such as Alice in Wonderland or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. While his latest Dark Shadows—based on a famous soap opera from the late ’60s—doesn’t exactly repair these problems, it exists in a much richer and interesting universe then some of these other films. It’s tremendous fun just to hang out with the Collins family in their cloudy Maine mansion, and though Dark Shadows is often incredibly sloppy, several great performances and a wonderful atmosphere make it one of the more engaging Burton joints in years.
Burton teams up once again with Johnny Depp, and this time Depp plays the vampire Barnabas Collins. The film begins in the 18th century, as the Collins family sails from England to northeastern America in order to start a fishing company. When the wealthy young Barnabas breaks the heart of the witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), she kills his new love interest (Bella Heathcote) and curses Barnabas to be a vampire for eternity. This eventually leads to a riot by the townspeople, and they bury him alive. He is dug up almost 200 years later—the year is now 1972—and he returns to the Collins mansion to find the business is going under and the family is dysfunctional. Living in the house is Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), the new head of the family, along with her brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), her daughter (Chloë Grace Moretz), the young David (Gullicer McGrath) and the somewhat unstable family psychiatrist (Helena Bonham Carter). There is also a drunk groundskeeper (Jackie Earle Haley), and a new governess that bears a striking resemblance to Barnabas’ 200-year-old soul mate.
However, things get complicated once again when Barnabas discovers that Angelique hasn’t exactly let bygones be bygones—she started a fishing company that put the Collins business under—and he must find a way to stop her from continuing her reign of terror. While Green gives a terrific performance that balances true villainy and lust, the love triangle between her, Barnabas and whoever Heathcote is playing in each time period ultimately becomes the least interesting part of the film. Burton isn’t all that interested in the soapier elements of the story (despite the fact that it’s based on a soap opera) and whenever the subject of romance comes up Dark Shadows becomes a snooze. That’s unfortunate, because all three corners of the triangle are quite promising. Even the relative newcomer Heathcote is a striking screen presence, but she is given so little to do that the film never fully invests us in her plight. We know nothing about either of her characters besides Barnabas’ love for them, which isn’t enough to make it convincing.
Burton gets much more mileage from the fish-out-of-water humor that comes from placing an 18th century vampire in the midst of the ’70s. Depp’s wacky Burton characters may be close to played out, but Barnabas isn’t wacky just for wackiness’ sake. (In contrast to, say, his take on Willy Wonka.) He’s a cartoonish being, but some of his reactions to his new ’70s home feel very appropriate. He isn’t just creeped out by the obvious things like cars and televisions; even the concept of pavement is something wholly foreign to our immortal hero. Depp plays the character very sincerely, and never does Dark Shadows wink at the camera during these scenes. He’s just a guy getting used to his new surroundings, and those delightfully strange moments are what make the film as successful as it is.
There’s also the matter of the film’s look, which is quite beautiful without ever being beautiful. The Maine setting is perfectly captured, and Burton’s only real error in this respect is the overuse of era-appropriate pop music that serves little purpose except to remind us that, yes, this is the ’70s. In many ways, Dark Shadows works best as a “hang out movie” that features a group of strange, rather captivating characters. (Some of which I wish we got more of, but Burton doesn’t have all day.) Other aspects of the film such as “plot” are less strong, but I have a weakness for movies that create a universe as fascinating as this. My enjoyment of this film somewhat reminds me of last year’s Bad Teacher; another “hang out film” that a lot of people dismissed but I actually quite liked. These are two very different films, but both work for me because they created worlds I got lost in for two hours and took the characters through a series of fun scenes and beats. That’s a tough thing to do, and any film that accomplishes this automatically gets on my good side.
Dark Shadows is anything but a great movie, but if nothing else it gave me hope that Burton may have at least one more great movie in him before his career comes to an end. Compared to some of his recent projects, this is a massive step forward. There’s still a somewhat manufactured quality to the proceedings, but for the first time in a while you can feel this is a project that Burton had some affection for. No one’s exactly out of their comfort zones here, and I may be grading on a curve, but if we’re going to keep watching Depp/Burton collaborations I’d rather they go this direction then back to demented kiddie land.