Tim Burton will go down as an artist who peaked early. Dark Shadows (2012) continued the autopilot fatigue that has plagued this director for the past twenty years. Burton’s quasi-religious fan base has a tendency to erroneously dress him up as a “dark” auteur. Rather, his has muted into a one-note style with increasingly few exceptions. The bulk of his post Ed Wood (1994) films are “Disneyfied” and actually jettison the darker, complex nuances in favor of what he imagines to be audience accessibility. Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) are lucid examples of this syndrome. Gene Wilder’s Wonka projected far more interior disturbance than Johnny Depp’s silicone interpretation. In Burton’s Alice Lewis Carroll’s twitchy surrealism gave way to a Disney-paced narrative with yet another cartoon pseudo performance by Depp at its center.
Many critics harp on Burton’s narrative shortcomings. Like Mario Bava (an epic Burton influence), Burton has admitted he wouldn’t know a good script if it bit him. However, Bava, never quite making it to the level of an in-demand filmmaker, retained enough independence to keep his oeuvre fresh. Burton’s aesthetic decline is a sharply dramatic one and the problem doesn’t necessarily lie in scripting. The films of Luis Bunuel refute the lie that three-dimensional characterizations are absolutely wedded to orthodox narratives. Burton’s early films evoked a strikingly fresh milieu with characters who, on the surface, seemed to be flying the freak flag high. Yet, Burton’s initial cannon of freaks really weren’t so different than the rest of us. If Pee Wee Herman, Adam, Barbara, Lydia and Beetlejuice, Bruce Wayne & Selina Kyle, Edward Scissorhands, Kim, and Peg, along with Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi were, perhaps, not immediate family, then they were most certainly extended family or close friends with whom we felt affinity, kinship, and admiration.
Then, something happened. Shortly after the backlash of Batman Returns (1992), Burton lost his mojo, and Depp followed suit in an even more pronounced obvious way. At one point, Depp promised to be the new Brando, offering a fresh alternative to the plasticity of Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. Whoever would have guessed that Cruise would eventually prove to be a smarter, riskier, more clever actor? Nothing in Depp’s later career has the nuanced depth of Brando’s Don, Paul, or Jack Mickler. Cruise’s Bill Harford, Frank Mackey, John Anderton, and Colonel Claus resonate far more intelligence and commitment to craft than anything Depp has committed to celluloid in the last decade. Instead, in his non-Burton films, Johnny Depp has become a parody of Errol Flynn’s late career parody. Doused in increasingly thick make-up and mascara, Depp’s offerings have amounted to flaccid drag (perhaps Ed Wood’s hooks dug too deeply into Depp). If Depp’s lethargic, dumbed-down Flynn-esque caricaturization increasingly amount to a dull train wreck then, in Dark Shadows, we witness the actor’s de-evolving slide into Bela Lugosi drag, which sounds more interesting than it actually is.
Depp’s phlegmatic Barnabas Collins all but evaporates inside a movie that sees Burton imitating Burton, disguised as a Gothic soaper that only worked as a product of its time and place. It would seem obvious, to anyone with an iota of artistic or pop culture instinct, or even to anyone who remembers the original “Dark Shadows,” that the series simply cannot not be duplicated. The short-lived, early 90s remake only served to reiterate how delightfully dated the original series had become.
Burton’s big screen treatment, some fifty years after the fact, is even further removed. Burton attempts to stylize Dark Shadows with his sophisticated, big budget stamp, never once realizing that the rudimentary quality of the original is its sole staying power. But even in his lampoon take, Burton plays it safe, and the film never rises above a ho-hum investment.
A vapid lead character, made strictly of cardboard with a cut-and-paste performance, is the sleepwalking ringmaster in a cookie-cutter ensemble. Even Eva Green, who proved herself a remarkably complex actress in Casino Royale (2006), fails to register. She is given no direction in a flatly written character. Chloe Grace Moretz, another promising talent (who did very good work in last year’s Hugo), is simply placed in front of a lens and told to snarl. Helena Bonham Carter screeches as Dr. Julia Hoffman; she seems like a character lifted out of a second-tier Hanna-Barbara cartoon. Only Michelle Pfeiffer, who can be a stoic actress, briefly manages to generate any living flesh from the printed script.
On the surface, Burton and Depp should have been as interesting a collaboration as Tod Browning and Lon Chaney, but the former team was composed of genuine malcontents coming from an actual freak circuit. Burton and Depp were birthed by Disney and “21 Jump Street.” It shows. Dark Shadows is yet another failure in the Burton/Depp cannon. Burton and Depp’s Dark Shadows comes across like a lecture from two stuffy, aging academics, who might have been genuinely weird at one time, failing to convince us how hilarious the original series now seems. In the last 20 years, the most interesting film Burton has himself directed was 2005’s The Corpse Bride and it would be difficult indeed to convince a millennial that, at one time, both Burton and Depp generated authentic excitement among alternative film lovers.