Dark Shadows ** (out of five)
Tim Burton is not my favourite filmmaker. I liked Ed Wood but the rest have always left me feeling empty (and often bored). I find them all to have the same flaw: they feel like a bunch of scenes stuck together rather than real movies with a desire to carry the audience away with a story. The plotting, pacing, structure, arc – the storytelling – it all seems off. And I’m afraid Dark Shadows falls firmly into line.
It begins well. A prologue, set in Liverpool two hundred years ago, is exciting, and beautiful, and intriguing. I was into it. I was hoping that finally Burton was going to deliver a coherent narrative.
My hopes were dashed. The longer the movie plays, the more disjointed, episodic, and incoherent it becomes. It has no idea what it is. It’s certainly not a comedy (the audience I was with laughed once); it’s definitely not scary, it’s not an action film. There is a romantic plot but it is so often left at the sidelines that there’s no way you could call it a romantic drama. It’s an oddity, a weird, misshapen lump of a film that almost refuses to choose a tone.
Perhaps, in its way, it has pitched a perfect game – for it is based on an oddity, the cultish soap opera Dark Shadows, which ran from 1966 to 1971, accumulating 1,225 episodes, and growing increasingly bizarre, and increasingly based in the supernatural, over time. That television show is now hailed as a “cult, camp classic” and “camp” is probably the best, and perhaps only, word to describe this film version. But works of art become “camp” over time, through fandom and the changing tastes of different eras; when you set out to make camp, you can end up simply making a film full of hammy acting, and Dark Shadows the movie is full of hammy acting. Johnny Depp, playing a role – Barnabas Collins the two-hundred year old vampire – that he has supposedly wanted to play for decades, makes the absolutely terminal choice of giving Barnabas what must be the slowest speech pattern in the history of cinema. This is the kind of choice that you can’t suddenly fix during shooting, and – since Depp is the central character of the film – it slows the whole thing down to a very long hour and fifty three minutes. In one scene with Michelle Pfeiffer, she seems to slow down to match him, and it feels interminable.
The design, as always for a Burton film, is stunning, and all of the performers are lovingly photographed (Bruno Delbonnel), including Eva Green, Bella Heathcote, and a fun Chloë Grace Moretz. But the script and editing are woeful. Burton and Depp’s previous collaboration, Alice in Wonderland, made a billion dollars, and, obviously, he was allowed to do what he wanted here; he must have been, because no studio executive in their right mind would have let this script be filmed without a fight, nor let this cut of the finished product stand. Burton must have final cut, and he’s probably a filmmaker who would be better off if he didn’t.
Soap operas are designed to run and run. They don’t have endings in mind because they don’t want to end. They hurl events into the mix simply to keep the engine running. Films, by contrast, tell a specific story. Basing a film on the improvised, ever-changing, loose anti-structure of an entire soap opera is ludicrous – unless you’re Tim Burton, whose tastes run to the strange, and against mine.