A Shiny Coffin Filled with Farts
In Dark Shadows, Tim Burton boldly challenges the notion that movies are a medium for telling stories. He flips the entire paradigm on its head! F*ck you, story! Thing happens! Reaction shot! That’s all you need! The whole thing is basically Tim Burton screaming gibberish at Johnny Depp to make him confused, because it’s cute when Johnny Deppp cocks his head to the side like a puppy.
Well, it is.
Good B-movies and schlock (and the kind of fancy Disney-goth Tim Burton used to be a master of) almost always hook you with an over-the-top premise, then, once you’re in the tent, reveal nuance, and engage you in such way that the characters start to feel real. You start to actually care about them – this wolfman, does he have nards? Dark Shadows does nearly the opposite, where a compelling-ish premise leads to a series of increasingly baffling situations happening to people who might as well be random passersby. By the end, I felt like Royal Tenenbaum, shouting “Characters? What characters? All I saw was a bunch of actors wearing costumes!”
Depp plays Barnabas Collins, son of a proper Englishman who, in 1752, set sail for Maine to make his fortune in fish canning, eventually becoming so successful that the family becomes the namesake of both an estate (Collinwood) and an entire town (Collinsport). They’re rich, but as Barnabas’s father shows up once for five seconds to tell us, “Nothing is as important as family or some shit, Barnabas, nothing.”
Barnabas ends up banging his hot maid, Angelique (Eva Green) who’s madly in love with him because they locked eyes once when they were eight, and that kind of thing always leads to lifelong attachment in movies. He says “feh” to easy sex with this busty temptress in his fabulous mansion, and it turns out she’s some sort of self-taught witch who turns Barnabas into a vampire with a snap of her fingers. Then she throws Barnabas’s fiancee off a cliff using mind control and gets the townspeople to bury him in a locked coffin, where he stays for almost 200 years.
I guess the idea is that she lives to torture him, only she must’ve found other interests, because he’s been gone for 200 years. And when he gets back, they spend most of their time running competing fish businesses. Oh and the Collins family still lives in Collinwood. Only it’s a little unclear who those family members actually are, since Depp’s fiancee fell off a cliff and we never saw him with any siblings. His descendants seem to have materialized asexually, from a book of stock characters – a-hole father, detached mother, slutty daughter, troubled son (he sees dead people!) – the full Scissorhands, as I like to call it. Also, witches apparently live for 200 years, because magic?
None of it makes sense, but that’s not even the problem. The problem is that the movie has no idea what it’s about. Is it about fathers and sons? Spurned lovers? Family rivalries? Class dynamics? Are we seriously supposed to care about a montage of Barnabas turning around a failing fish cannery? Themes are clumsily groped at and then forgotten, like my ex-girlfriend. Depp’s love interest (Bella Heathcote, pale and busty and blue-green-eyed, like all Tim Burton love interests) gets maybe ten minutes of total screen time, and the only way we know she’s his love interest is that she’s played by the same actress as his dead fiancee.
The only idea the story really pursues is Johnny Depp as this Forrest Gump meets Unfrozen Vampire Aristocrat character, who bumbles his way through the landscape of seventies pop culture. And it’s not some undiscovered corner of seventies pop corner, either, it’s stuff even I recognized, having been born in the eighties, like lava lamps, and Love Story, and Steve Miller Band. “If only Shakespeare had been as eloquent,” says Barnabas of “The Joker,” in a particularly embarrassing sequence. Colonial-era vampires love stoner rock? WE’RE GONNA NEED A BIGGER RECORD SCRATCH!
Speaking of music, this movie could win an Oscar for bad, too-on-the-nose musical choices. There’s “Season of the Witch,” by Donovan (GET IT? BECAUSE SHE’S A WITCH!), “Superfly” when Depp looks super fly, and Barry White during Depp and Eva Green’s sex scene – “My First, My Last, My Everything,” because Johnny Depp is her first, her last… you get the picture. This was Burton’s first sex scene, and he seems so uncomfortable with it that he just sort of films them tearing clothes and shoving things off desks, like an 8-year-old’s idea of steamy naughty time from watching soap operas.
Then Barnabas wants to throw a ball, because the best families always threw the biggest balls back in his day, he says, and slutty daughter Chloe Moretz tells him that if he wants to throw a super-awesome party, he should get Alice Cooper. So he does. And Alice Cooper shows up! Like, modern-day, older-than-my-parents Alice Cooper, playing himself in a movie set in 1973! A full part where he plays songs and everything! And hey, wasn’t there already a big Alice Cooper cameo in Wayne’s World? And what is it with centuries-old vampires liking crappy music? Wasn’t that the entire plot of Queen of the Damned? (Okay, some Alice Cooper isn’t crappy, but you know what I mean). This whole movie is so referencey and barely sensical, it’s like a half-remembered dream of other shitty movies.
But on the plus side, there are plenty of pretty reaction shots.