Remember when Tim Burton used to make great movies? You know, fun and original stuff like Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and, shoot, even Mars Attacks! Well, with a few exceptions, that old Tim Burton no longer exists. The new Tim Burton cares little about innovation and imagination. As Dark Shadows confirms, he really only cares about his own brand, a business now devoted to middling remakes.
That's not say the Burton brand isn't better than most Hollywood junk—it clearly comes from the mind of a seasoned auteur. It just means that it's not totally realized and, alas, repeated with the same silly shenanigans, like an eccentric protagonist played by Johnny Depp. It also means that it's likely a revision of something that came before, from Roald Dahl's 1964 children's book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Lewis Carroll's 1865 fairy tale Alice in Wonderland.
Dark Shadows, derived from a 1960s gothic soap opera of the same name, epitomizes the essence of the Burton brand. Depp's not the film's only weird figure; there are a slew of other quintessential Burton quirks, including pale-skinned characters, cartoonish landscapes, elaborate costumes, and, naturally, Helena Bonham Carter in her usual role of insane adversary. The film hinges on such gimmicks; instead of creating something new, or at least fooling us into thinking he's created something new, Burton provides the bare minimum, and that's it.
These necessities certainly have their charm. Who doesn't enjoy watching Depp in weirdo mode, prancing around, dropping sarcastic one-liners? Playing Barnabas Collins, an 18th century vampire who awakens in the 20th (1972, to be exact), Depp shines brightly despite lurking in the dark. Though now typecast as all-get-out, Depp has come to perfect these sort of characters, always making them feel alive in spite of how dead they've become. The same goes for Carter, who may just be more pigeonholed than him. There are also amusing performances from the whole Collins household, including characters played by Michelle Pfeiffer, Gulliver McGrath, Jackie Earle Haley, and Chloe Grace Moretz.
The plot goes something like this: In the mid 1700s, Barnabas, the master of Collinwood Manor, is a rich playboy who breaks the heart of a witch, Angelique Bouchard. The spurned Angelique turns Barnabas into a vampire … and buries him alive. When he is accidentally freed from his coffin in 1972, he finds the old manor in ruin, while occupied by his dysfunctional descendants. Barnabas confides his true identify with Elizabeth, the family matriarch (Pfeiffer), but the live-in shrink, Dr. Hoffman (Bonham Carter), Helena is suspicious. Other strange characters come and go, and all sorts of shenanigans ensue.
In Dark Shadows, we also get Burton's standard visual spectacle. It's ultra dark and campy, nothing we haven't seen before, but no one can deny its artfulness. Though slowly on his way to going hack, Burton boasts a true director's eye—he has a natural sense of space and visual contrast. His unique yet tired sensibilities emerge especially in the finale, a supernatural showdown in which Burton sends blood through the walls and shatters living flesh, among other things. It's epic, and gory.