Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice
May 22, 2012
Johnny Depp has long fostered the identity of the bizarre outsider in the entertainment world. Often, it seems as though he purposefully picks the most caricture-like, cartoonish roles he can find, looking to escape traditional leading man status. But by fighting against being type-cast as the heartthrob, Depp has simply forced himself into another box. Tim Burton is often the director who provides him with the unorthodox characters that now make up the majority of his oeuvre.
Dark Shadows is the eighth film Depp and Burton have worked on together. Their first, and best, was 1990’s Edward Scissorhands. They also made Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (their worst effort), Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and Alice in Wonderland.
It’s funny: outside of his films, Depp is considered one of the best-looking men in Hollywood. He’s got a rakish, devil-may-care attitude, and he always sports a deep tan, long flowing hair and several tattoos. Tim Burton, on the other hand, looks like he could fit right in with the characters in one of his surreal films. He has dark, wild hair and a pale complexion. Interestingly, in each of Depp and Burton’s collaborations, Depp comes to look more and more like Burton himself, and less and less like Johnny Depp.
In Dark Shadows (based on the 1960s and ’70s television show), Depp plays Barnabas Collins, a (pale, dark haired) vampire who was locked in a coffin in the 1760s and in accidently dug up 200 years later, in 1972. Everything about the swinging ’70s, from cars to televisions to women’s lib, is new and foreign to him. Much of the film’s humor comes from placing Barnabas in situations where a man born two centuries ago would have no idea how to react.
Barnabas’ back story is a bit complicated: He comes from a wealthy family who founded the seafaring village of Collinsport, Maine shortly after arriving in the New World from England. He had an affair with one of the family’s maids, Angelique (Eva Green), but never loved her. Instead, he becomes engaged to his true love, Josette (newcomer Bella Heathcote). Unfortunately for them both, Angelique is a witch. She hypnotizes Josette to jump to her death. Barnabas witnesses her demise, and jumps into the ocean after her, hoping to die as well. Angelique curses him with vampirism, however, so he cannot die. Instead, Angelique sets the town against him and locks him in his coffin, where he is forced to lie in time-out for two centuries.
When Barnabas is awakened by a crew of unsuspecting construction workers (whom he promptly devours), he sets off to find what remains of his family and their estate. He discovers that only four Collinses are left, and that their fortune has expired. Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer, in her second collaboration with Burton) is the family’s long-suffering matriarch. Her daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a severely bored and disaffected teenager. Roger (Johnny Lee Miller), Elizabeth’s brother, also resides in the collapsing Collins mansion, along with his young son David (Gulliver McGrath), who tells everyone he meets that he can communicate with the ghost of his dead mother. David’s au pair, Vicky (also played by Heathcote), joins the family just before Barnabas resurfaces.
Like many Depp-Burton collaborations, much of the fun of Dark Shadows is in the visuals. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Amelié, Across the Universe) creates beautiful imagery of the stormy Maine countryside, and production designer Rick Heinrichs (Sleepy Hollow, The Big Lebowski) overfills Collinsport with so much awful ’70s decor that it appears at times as though the audience is on an acid trip along with one of the film’s aging hippie characters.
Then there are Depp and Pfeiffer, the latter of whom stole every scene in which she appears. These two have much experience creating vamping, campy characters who don’t as much chew the scenery as they rip it to shreds and come back for seconds. Pfeiffer appears haughtily disdainful (and later, haughtily helpful), preening about the set like a queen forced to bunk with the stable hands. Depp, for his part, can’t quite match Pfeiffer’s sneering, but his misunderstanding of 20th century customs (women doctors? what?) is humorous. In Dark Shadows, this over-acting is appropriate. The entire production is over-the-top.
This approach works wonderfully for the first 30 minutes of the film. Eventually, though, the movie runs out of steam. There are simply too many characters, too many side plots and too much backstory to fit into 113 minutes. Burton tries to speed things along by including several montages, but they’re a cheap substitute for real storytelling.
The main plotline, I suppose, concerns Barnabas’ rekindled love for Vicky/Josette (the film never does explain how Heathcote plays both characters, even though Vicky also interacts with Josette’s ghost). Honestly, Depp has little chemistry with either Heathcote or Green (as a witch, Angelique has also been around for 200 years, and she and Barnabas can’t seem to keep their hands off each other when they meet again, his undying love for Vicky/Josette aside). Barnabas appears rather nonsexual, though the plot revolves around his crazed love life.
If I were writing Dark Shadows—which was actually written by Seth Grahame-Smith, who also wrote the novels and screenplays Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies—I would cut out all the extra junk and just concentrate on Depp, Pfeiffer and Green—another master of antipathy. Few of the other characters—particularly Carolyn, who comes off like she’s continuously recovering from anesthesia—are necessary. Just let these three masters of creepy-kooky camp play around. Dark Shadows doesn’t need everything else.