Review: “Dark Shadows”

As major fans of the cult 1960’s daytime soap on which it’s based, filmmaker Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp attempt a fusion of a serious tribute to the unusual sudser with a campy supernatural comedy much more akin to Burton’s previous work. It’s no surprise then that this two-pronged approach fails to come together in a way a more tonally straightforward film would have, it’s also not a shock that the diversions into comedy work better than the Gothic melodrama at its heart.

An improvement on last year’s woeful “Alice in Wonderland”, ‘Shadows’ at least offers some interesting world building and a consistently fun (if not particularly empathetic) performance from Depp. Depp disappears into his distinct old school eccentric vampire character who has been imprisoned in a box for centuries by a scorned witch, which allows for not only ‘man out of time’ moments of comedy but the odd moment of darkness and brutality (albeit mostly offscreen) that add some spice.

‘Shadows’ is an odd film in that it’s both too crazy and not oddball enough. The reason classic Burton films like “Beetlejuice” or “Edward Scissorhands” worked was because amidst all the wacky production design, make-up and absurdist characters there was always a sense that the filmmaker had full control behind the wheel and was following a steady course. That’s no longer the case – strange and stale tangents often overtake the narrative instead of being the brief and inventive asides they should be. Strong and consistent themes are no longer controlling the small moments but are being determined by them.

This results in a film that starts out promising with a slow build setup and an assuredness we haven’t seen from the helmer in a while, but by the third act becomes a sloppy free-for-all whose only consistency to either the characters or plot is sheer lunacy. Even those of us who love to embrace campy or wacky films will have a hard time getting over the sheer logic-defying randomness of much of the film’s last half hour which feels like it’s trying to throw every idea it has onto the screen in the hope something will stick.

It’s a pity too as the script has some gloriously fun and outrageous moments while delivering quite distinct characters that populate the now rundown Collinswood Manor and the nearby port town. There’s some solid supporting turns too from Jackie Earle Haley’s groundskeeper, Bella Heathcote’s reincarnated lover, Michelle Pfieffer’s proud matriarch, Helena Bonham Carter’s booze-soaked psychologist, and Eva Green’s vengeful witch. It’s a testament to how well it works in the few times it actually does click that, despite the film’s structural collapse at the end, this is a world I could actually revisit.

Production design and costuming is top notch, the Manor set an impressive bit of construction while the cinematography is dark and atmospheric without losing the lustre of rich colours (none of that overused desaturation crap here). Having not seen the original series, it’s hard to tell if Burton was trying to condense multiple subplots from across all 1200+ episodes of it into a two-hour film, though that would explain why it’s such a hodgepodge of weirdness. The few moments that do work can’t compensate for the great swaths that don’t and once again it feels like potentially great material perfectly suited to this filmmaker has ultimately gone to waste.