Movie Review: “Dark Shadows”

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Like just about every movie Tim Burton directs these days, “Dark Shadows” is a third-generation remake that stars Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter. The film has its charms, most of them related to Burton’s trademark macabre production design.

But overall “Dark Shadows” is a bit of a mess, with way too many characters and full of jarring tonal shifts. It’s trying to do about five different things and doesn’t do any of them especially well.

Based on a 1960s TV soap opera that ran for a thousand episodes- and was later unsuccessfully rebooted in the early ’90s- “Dark Shadows” has the good fortune of being a vampire property in the age of Twilight and True Blood. It also didn’t hurt that Burton and Depp are both said to be lifelong fans.

Depp is Barnabas Collins, a Liverpool-born shipping magnate in 1790s Maine, who in the film’s first five minutes is both turned into a vampire and buried alive. He awakens in 1972, in order to discover his now-crumbling estate and a large, troubled group of his descendants living there.

This is where “Dark Shadows” goes off in all sorts of weird directions. Throughout, the film is filled with painfully feeble fish-out-of-water jokes. If you’re not instantly smitten with the hilarity of an 18th-century English vampire encountering lava lamps, glam rock, and other touchstones of the counterculture circa 1972, then this movie probably isn’t for you, because that’s all it is for the entire middle section.

Alice Cooper even makes a pointless cameo as himself, with everyone involved oblivious to his being 40 years too old to pass as his 1972 self.

The main thrust of the plot is some sort of forgettable nonsense about the Collins family and their rivals and their centuries-old battle over fishing rights, which is really just a proxy battle between Barnabas and Angelica (Eva Green), his lover/nemesis in both centuries. This pays off in the movie’s best scene, a hilarious sex romp between the two of them that’s more acrobatic, creatively staged and hilarious than anything True Blood has offered to date.

But that’s not Depp’s only romance; he also has separate storylines with both Bonham Carter and Victoria (Bella Heathcote), who is brought into the plot and looks at one point like she’ll be a main character, before she disappears for 40 minutes.

That happens with quite a few different characters here, including ones played by Michelle Pfeiffer and Chloe Moretz- just when things are getting interesting, they vanish from the movie for long stretches. There’s even a scene, in which a father abandons his son, that would be totally heartbreaking if we’d spent more than two minutes with either character prior to that moment.

The third act, meanwhile, falls victim to the same problem that ruined just about every True Blood episode last season: It forgets about character development and storytelling, in favor of the vampires and other creatures just using their powers against each other over and over again.

Depp isn’t terrible, and this is certainly an improvement on his career-worst performance as the Mad Hatter in Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland.”

Green gives her all, but there’s something sort of off about her character, she seems like she was lifted right from Burton’s “Mars Attacks” into this movie. Moretz is especially a highlight, but the movie doesn’t do her character justice, especially with an inexplicable late plot twist.  Meanwhile, Jackie Earle Haley plays a comic relief character who never gets to do anything funny.

I’ll say what I said the last five times I reviewed Burton’s movies: The guy really needs to diversify. Direct something personal, like his great “Big Fish,” and not another re-imagining of a movie or TV show that’s already been made two or three times.

I don’t expect him to heed my advice, though. Burton’s 2010 “Alice in Wonderland” was one of his worst outings, in which he indulged every one of his worst impulses as a filmmaker, so naturally, it grossed over a billion dollars worldwide and was Burton’s biggest hit ever.


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