Dark Shadows a return to form for director Tim Burton would be a damnable lie. It is, however, the first Tim Burton film in ages and ages that suggest that a return to form might even be possible. If I were looking for a pithy one-liner to describe the film, it would end up being something like, "This feels to me like the worst Burton film of the 1990s", which is not, of course, a compliment. But consider that in the 1990s, Burton made Batman Returns and Sleepy Hollow; in the 2000s, he made Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It is better to keep company with one of these groups than the other.
The idea of Dark Shadows has been kicking around forever; Johnny Depp has been trying to star in a feature-length remake of the 1966-'71 paranormal soap opera for most of the '00s, and it rather stands to reason that he'd finally manage to suck longtime collaborator Burton into the project with him, it being characteristic of all of their work together since at least the aforementioned Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that they consistently and even eagerly feed each other's worst impulses and most undisciplined missteps. And so it is that the Burton-directed Dark Shadows feels at all steps like a favor for a friend, lacking the fullest expression of the director's characteristic over-designed aesthetic (though for that reason, it lacks the horrible feeling of e.g. Alice in Wonderland, that it's just an exercise in branding, Burton® "doing" Lewis Carroll). It is, in fact, just a wee bit tired, though better by far to be tired than to be manic, particularly in Burton's case, recently.
The story has been exceptionally loosely adapted from the several hundred episodes of television by John August (his fourth Burton project) and Seth Graham-Smith (his first motion picture, though not his first horror pastiche; he authored the novel-length joke Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and is turning his Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter into another movie later this year), and it goes a bit like this: in the 1770s, Barnabas Collins (Depp) of the Anglo-American Collins family of Maine and Liverpool, owners of a trans-Atlantic fishing empire, made the mistake of screwing a French servant girl, Angelique (Eva Green), who also happened to be a witch. In punishment for mistreating her, she sent his fiancée, Josette (Bella Heathcote) over a cliff, and turned him into a vampire, thereafter whipping the local townsfolk into a torch-wielding mob and leaving her ex-love buried under the ground for centuries.
Jump to 1972 (which we note, is the year after the series ended, for what is no doubt a good reason): a young girl who looks exactly like Josette travels to the old Collins home of Collinwood, on the outskirts of Collinsport, Maine, under the assumed name Victoria Winters. There, she takes on the job of governess for the last straggling remnants of the Collins line: matriarch Elizabeth Collins-Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her miserable teenage daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz), Elizabeth's shiftless brother Roger (Johnny Lee Miller) and his strange ghost-spotting son David (Gulliver McGrath). Here also we meet drunken psychiatrist Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), drunken handyman/Renfield surrogate Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley), and dotty old housekeeper Mrs. Johnson (Ray Shirley). For a little while, we follow along with Victoria as she encounters various creepy things going on, including Josette's ghost drifting along the halls; but then Barnabas's coffin is dug up by a construction crew, and we mostly stop caring about her as all, as the plot heavily shifts gears to follow the vampire's attempt to restore the financial fortunes and good reputation of the Collins family, which has long since been driven to the point of ruin by upstart fishery Angelbay, run by the immortal and ageless Angelique, who built an entire town's economy around screwing over the family of the man who slept with her.
Two things, and I do not know which matters more: first, though I admire the intention to cram as many details from a 1225-episode television serial into a feature film as possible, even at a swollen 113-minutes, Dark Shadows can't deal with them all. And that is how we end up with things like the false first act with false protagonist Victoria Winters, at least two more major characters than the movie knows what to do with (Roger ends up being blackmailed away just to keep the headcount down, Carolyn is saddled with an out-of-nowhere third-act twist in a feeble attempt to justify her character, Willie is shoehorned into positions where no character was necessary in the first place), the overabundance of incident in the film's middle; and the need to wrap up a serialised story in one big moment leads to an awkward, largely incoherent climax that gets out of Burton's control almost from the moment it begins.
The other thing: in 2012, are we really still at the "sexually spurned woman goes nuts and destroys her lover's family" stage? And even if we are, is there any reason at all for her to be presented as so unambiguously monstrous as Angelique is throughout the film? Lord knows that Burton has never been particularly interested in such issues one way or the other, but there's something bizarrely anti-progressive about the gender politics on display here.
And while the story is an ungainly, frankly unpleasant mess at times, Dark Shadows works - or it worked for me, anyway, and I'm not going to ask anybody to join me in having it work for them. But it does plenty of things well enough, if not very good, especially the creation of a self-contained visual world in which all sorts of different and theoretically incompatible styles are contrasted and mixed. No surprise here; it's the thing that Burton does, and particularly the thing that Burton does with the aid of production designer Rick Heinrichs and costume designer Colleen Atwood, his frequent collaborators, who here create together exactly the Gothic-meets-'70s-parody look you would undoubtedly expect from the scenario and their previous work; but then, there's nothing wrong with the look of a thing being unsurprising, if it works. And as a sheer exercise in mixing tacky over-saturated colors with gloom and dust and grey everywhere, Dark Shadows pleased the heck out of me, particularly with Bruno Delbonnel shooting everything in a chilly array of whites (and boy, there's nothing fascinating in the same way as when over-saturated colors in the sets and costumes are shot with deliberate under-saturation). And Burton oversees it all with an infinitely more laconic, observational style than we're used to seeing these days - the slow cutting, the constantly drifting camera, the lack of depth, and pretty much everything else gives the film a certain rhyming feel with the director's second film, Beetlejuice, I thought; not the same aesthetic, as such, but maybe the same technical vocabulary. And this gave me a considerable amount of pleasure: after the nightmare of Alice in Wonderland, it's a welcome return to films that are stylised without being stylish and glossy, and if it does not feel revelatory in the way that all of the director's films up through 1999 did, it also does not feel as derivative and artificial as most of what he has done since 2001.
This is, then, the point of the review where I confess that design is the best thing that Dark Shadows has going for it; not the only thing, though. Grahame-Smith's screenplay has more than its share of clunky jokes and anachronisms, but there are enough moments that land that it's safe to call it a successful comedy on the whole; and for that matter, however much the project would seem to scream "ironic camp fest!" from every corner, it's shocking how much the filmmakers are completely sincere in their approach to this story; save for a few too many musical cues deployed a bit too cutesily (the film is absolutely rotten with musical montages), Burton & co. never obviously or smugly look down at the story nor the time period. It's sad that this even has to be said; once upon a time, the defining element of Burton's storytelling was how guilelessly sincere he was towards his misfits, oddballs, and weirdos, and despite the inherent camp potential in, say, an Ed Wood, there's barely a moment in that film where he's mocking the characters.
And maybe because of this, or maybe it's just incidental, but there were more performances I enjoyed in this film than in any other Burton picture of the last decade. Not Depp's. No, he and Burton need very much to stop seeing each other for a little while at least, and while there's nothing grotesque about his Barnabas, as there was in his Mad Hatter and Willy Wonka, there's nothing very interesting, either. But there are three terrific performances by the three main actresses: Bonham Carter, unrecognisable in her lusty alcoholic swanning; Pfeiffer, whose last project with the director resulted in one of the all-time best performances in a superhero movie, giving far and away the funniest performance in the whole movie, often by doing nothing besides raising her eyebrow; and especially Green, stuck with a shallow character but playing the villain role for all it's worth, shuttling from angry to sexy to gleefully evil in the blink of an eye and being stupendously, impossibly gorgeous while doing it. Three great performances out of a bloated cast like that isn't all that much, but it's two more than any other Burton film this millennium. And anyway, character creation isn't really what the film's about, so when it happens by accident, it's just a nice perk. No, the game here is heavy atmosphere and a light tone colliding in what amounts to an amiable walking tour of some really swell locations, with just enough spookiness that it earns the "Gothic" tag. Not a masterpiece; not a great, and hardly even a good film. But it's a step in the right direction, anyway.