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.

Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins

Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins

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.

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Eva Green as Angelique

Eva Green as Angelique

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.

But even though these elements prove reasonably accomplished and mostly entertaining, the inevitable question still is: Are they anything we haven't seen before? Or put another way: Are they reminiscent of the old Burton? The answer is "no." The same sort of results can be seen in the latter half of Burton's body of work, specifically Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd and Alice in Wonderland. Burton continues to settle for mediocrity when we know he has the ability to do better—to get back to making future cult classics.

Helena Bonham Carter as Dr. Hoffman

Helena Bonham Carter as Dr. Hoffman

Dark Shadows has other problems, too, namely a sluggish pace. Burton's films usually move swiftly, building with momentum to their climax, but this plot stays slow and steady before arriving at an end. Even then, Burton fails to develop Barnabas' relationship with Victoria "Vicky" Winters (Bella Heathcote), the Collins' new nanny who appears to be a flawless fit with her dark hair and fair complexion. Depp and Heathcote create a convincing chemistry which we see in a few pertinent scenes—like a lovely moment on the balcony during a party where Alice Cooper performs (what?)—but we don't get enough of them to care about the outcome. While the film allegedly centers on the couple, it rarely actually centers on the couple.

Director Burton on the set with Michelle Pfeiffer

Director Burton on the set with Michelle Pfeiffer

Such missteps are a shame because Burton possesses what most filmmakers simply don't have. He's a visionary and an auteur. In light of his dark visions, he also in many ways an optimist—a cynical optimist, actually—with significant things to say. Through play on metaphor and genre, he not only continues to probe ideas of spiritual and moral magnitude, but he also gets down to the core of human experience—the curse of the vampire here could arguably allegorize another known curse from Genesis 3. But until Burton starts trying again, no one will be listening. All his genius will go to waste. So we'll have to settle for the new Tim Burton while remaining hopeful for a return of the old.

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Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Barnabas Collins is a cursed man—a vampire. No matter how hard he tries to be good and change, he can't. How does his curse relate to the curse of Adam (human depravity) in Genesis 3? Do you see similarities?
  2. In the midst of the dark world of Dark Shadows, is there a sense of wrong and right? A moral code? If so, how would you describe it? How does it compare to that of Scripture?
  3. What's your interpretation of the finale? How do you understand Burton's reading of the idiom, "blood is thicker than water," in relationship to it? In the end, is Barnabas redeemed, cursed or both? How does your answer make sense theologically?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Dark Shadows is rated PG-13 for comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking. People are killed violently. These scenes are graphic and bloody but gimmicky and intentionally comical. There are several sex scenes, including one that infers oral sex and another where a vampire and witch literally get out of control and destroy a bedroom. A young boy references masturbation. Hippies are shown smoking pot, and one character drinks excessively and takes prescription pills. A few characters smoke cigarettes and use profanity sparingly—words like "bitch" and "bastard."

Our Rating
2 Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(6 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking)
Directed By
Tim Burton
Run Time
1 hour 53 minutes
Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green
Theatre Release
May 11, 2012 by Warner Bros.
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