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Review: 'Dark Shadows' Is Another Lazy, Incoherent Disappointment From Tim Burton

by Todd Gilchrist
May 8, 2012 5:59 PM
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Dark Shadows Johnny Depp

Dark Shadows” is not the worst movie that Tim Burton has ever made, but that’s only because there’s nothing worse than “Alice in Wonderland.” A desperate jumble of ideas in search of deeper substance, much less focus, Burton’s latest collaboration with actor Johnny Depp is the latest, and perhaps greatest, proof that yet exists for the director: he's a hell of a production designer. Given the film’s incredible lack of cohesion – or follow-through – it feels like the resigned end result of a studio’s best efforts to whittle an unwieldly mess into something manageable, but far too many of its shortcomings remain exposed for it to play as anything other than a showcase for the star and filmmaker’s laziness, hubris, or both.

Depp plays Barnabas Collins, a wealthy New England landowner condemned to eternal torment as a vampire after he rebuffs the attentions of a chambermaid named Angelique (Eva Green) who dallies in witchcraft. After watching his beloved fiancée Josette (Bella Heathcote) hurl herself off a cliff, Barnabas allows himself to be buried by the local townspeople, but 200 years later he’s unceremoniously exhumed, his thirst for blood more intense than ever. Returning to his family’s estate, Barnabas soon discovers that his descendants have left his fortunes in disarray. As frantically as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) tries to keep the Collinses together, her brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller) neglects his son David (Gulliver McGrath) and indulges in some proper 1970s-style hedonism instead of dealing with the death of his wife, even as her rebellious daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz) holes up in her room, dreaming of a different kind of escape.

Dark Shadows Helena Bonham Carter Jonny Lee Miller

Retrieving a few treasures from a secret hideaway in the recesses of the family mansion, Barnabas vows to restore the Collinses to their former glory. But his plan is interrupted first when he’s overpowered by the resemblance between his beloved Josette and David’s young nanny Victoria (Heathcote again), and then again when he realizes that Angelique is very much alive, has turned herself into the town’s favorite citizen, and still holds a grudge against him.

Precisely how bad “Dark Shadows” is is not immediately apparent: the opening flashback, and the introduction of Victoria both hold as much promise as they do perfunctory exposition. But even with Depp doing marginally more work than he does as Jack Sparrow – albeit indulging all of the same weirdo-cartoon muscles – there isn’t much reason to care for Barnabas, even after his lover commits suicide and he’s sentence to an eternity as a vampire. Worse, the other introductory idea, that Victoria is somehow connected to his fiancée (reincarnated? Reborn? Inhabiting the body of the young woman?) is vaguely promoted then dropped almost altogether, as Victoria is seen only about two more times in the film before she and Barnabas declare deep, meaningful feelings for one another. (Not to mention the fact that she’s supposed to be David’s nanny, and there literally is not one single scene where she is caring for him.)

Dark Shadows Eva Green

Other than the weird, aggressively sexual relationship that Barnabas has with Angelique – including a gymnastic fling the two have in which they slam into walls, fly in the air and destroy her corporate office – there seems to be no other significant throughline for any of the action, although the word “family” is repeated often. But “family” is not a story, and neither is a cranked-to-eleven soundtrack which features an indefatigable string of 1970s pop songs that dominate and eventually overshadow whatever might possibly be going on in the narrative. The movie is just disastrously disorganized – there are so many false starts and burnoff endings that have no bearing on the actual beginning, middle and end of what might even generously be described as a plot that it’s difficult to imagine what Burton and his actors believed they were making, or what their motivation might have been from one scene to the next.

Speaking of the actors, only Eva Green seems to be relishing the glistening awfulness of her character within the confines of an abominable story – which really only makes sense because hers is the only character whose motivations and behavior are clear and explained. Depp furtively attempts to find the humor in Barnabas’ combination of anachronistic self-importance and romantic earnestness, but he’s overpowered by the soundtrack, and the lack of any counterbalance by anyone else in the production, Burton included. Pfeiffer does her best, as does Miller, but Moretz  makes a dubious accomplishment in giving her first truly awful performance, although I’d give her the benefit of the doubt that there is footage on a cutting room floor which indicates she had more to do, and did more with what she had. As it stands, however, there are few more excruciating moments in the movie than the reaction shots of her staring at the camera in close-up with slack-jawed sneer as she listens to Barnabas’ requests for romantic advice.

Dark Shadows Michelle Pfeiffer

Heathcote is really likeable and smart in the role of Victoria, but again, she’s given so little screen time to develop the role that after a dynamite introduction scene, she vanishes and communicates all of the important feelings and stuff via bland exposition or not at all (because it’s not in the movie). It’s fairly unforgivable for a character as seemingly important as hers to have so little screen time, much less so little explanation or exploration of her behavior. The mythology of the movie further confuses her identity and her importance – what relation does she have to Josette? – so that at the end we’re not quite sure how many tragedies have piled upon one another for things to work out the way they do.

Depressingly, there are few things I’d like to see more than a good Tim Burton movie – I’ve been a huge fan of his since Large Marge scared the living hell out of me in 1985 – but this kind of crap is just sort of unredeemable, because there’s no reason why a filmmaker of his stature and his authority could or should be making movies this shoddily assembled and unengaging. For viewers as much as for him, it’s literally impossible to imagine what the point of it might have initially been to undertake this, and then what in it ever could or would have gotten audiences excited about it. Who gives a shit about “Dark Shadows”? Respectfully, nobody who wants to see it brought to the big screen via a post-“Alice in Wonderland” Tim Burton and a post- “Pirates of the Caribbean 4” Johnny Depp. In fact, now that I think about it, maybe this is worse than "Alice in Wonderland."

But even if it isn’t, there’s nothing better to do with this movie than to damn it with precisely that sort of faint praise, and then hope it disappears quickly from screens. Because “Dark Shadows” is, at its absolute best, an awful movie, an unfocused mess, and a top-notch piece of production and costume design in search of a story. Maybe it’s still lurking somewhere in those shadows, but for my money, no more light need be shone on this kind of grim display. [D]

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  • michael | October 7, 2012 12:10 AMReply

    The movie was awesome it is one of the only vampire movies I like I don't even really like the twilight movies but dark shadows I give 10 thumbs up I would like to see a second with the same actors! Especially Johnny Depp he was awesome in this movie!

  • nina | July 3, 2012 5:40 PMReply

    i swear this isn't a bad movie i am obsesed with this movie and it may see a little boring but everyone is entitled to their own opinion so if anyone says that no one ever should watch this movie you are wrong because u should give them a chance

  • Keth | June 22, 2012 12:12 PMReply

    Re: Depp at the Holywood Premiere / Painted on smile:
    - He deserves an oscar for that performance!

  • Keth | June 22, 2012 12:11 PMReply

    If anything this movie proves to me the power of 'Contractual Obigations', when I recall Depps painted-on-smile at the Hollywood Premiere. It is a terrible film: Fact. None of the characters bar one or two are fully formed. Add to this the incoherent storyline, that halfway through becomes a rambling mess.

    That a director of Burton's calibre could proceed to make this mess, having read the script first is beyond belief, and only goes to reinforce the fact that it's easier to release a movie that'll bomb rather than re-write or cancel.

    I hope they had fun making it, - not fun to watch. A real pity.

  • PotatoBob123 | May 29, 2012 6:56 PMReply

    i saw this movie yesterday and i swear it wasnt a bad movie. i think everyone should watch this film because its exciting and thrilling with some humor.

  • Bea | May 14, 2012 11:51 PMReply

    This was a fun movie, not a replication of the tv series although there were some great references that took one back to the original time period of Dark Shadows. The 70s infusion was comical. LOVED IT!

  • Penny Johnson | May 14, 2012 4:58 AMReply

    It was a painful experience -after 5 minutes of watching DS the movie -it was abundonly clear that no one associated with the movie ever saw the beloved tv series, if they had, they should be ashamed of their disrespect to the shows enduring qualities and beloved original cast. I am sure no one will be rushing home from school to watch this embarrasingly, cheap farce. On the other hand, the DVD sets of the original series are sold out and additional press dates for more sets are flying off the pre-order shelves. Doesn't this tell you something? Why not take a really good thing and make it better - not destroy it, RIP Jonathan Fried - I am thankful you did not suffer throught this subclass attempt to cash in on DS's enduring success.

  • Reichenbach | May 12, 2012 7:39 AMReply

    When did it become a crime for directors to make movies for fun? He enjoyed making it, Depp enjoyed being a part of it, and as someone whose only past references of "Dark Shadows" comes from her mother, I enjoyed the s**t out of this movie. Yeah, I asked if any of it was in relation to the TV show, and was told that it wasn't, but more like an overview, condensed series of events.

    Does it make me want to watch the actual show? Yes, after I finish my marathon watch of Classic Doctor Who, Red Dwarf, The Legend of Korra and the other dozen of shows that catch my interest.

    And what draws my attention to these shows? That the way I was introduced to them was by means of someone else having a blast making them and sharing something about them to me.

    So no, ROCHELLE, the people of my generation could have an interest in the Original show. Because if it's as well done as you claim, it will hold our attention, just like the current versions of Sherlock does, and period pieces like Downton Abbey. If they can even find this show, it's a testament to their love of media and assuming that they won't enjoy it is to group them with the mindless that keep Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives of Don't Give A F**k on the air. You are entitled to your opinion, but you have no right to generalize an entire generation; it's ageist and hurtful and goes both ways.

    As for my thoughts on Tim Burton movies, it remains the same as it did when I was 7: The man is magical, his movies put a smile on my face, and for anyone to not see that, well BOO on them for being a bit too grown up to enjoy things once in their lives.

  • Robert | August 3, 2013 1:49 PM

    It's a piece of incoherent junk; not one memorable performance in the whole damn movie; just Burton and Depp playing dress up with millions of dollars.

    The only think I found interesting (but also incoherent) was that David's mother Laura Collins (who, of course, we never meet or know very much about) defeats Angelique. Interesting idea as Laura Collins was the original, pre-Barnabas supernatural baddie on the show-but she was in immortal Phoenix, not a ghost.

  • Snickers | May 12, 2012 11:18 PM

    Also, thanks for mentioning the brilliance of Sherlock against the God-awfulness of "mainstream" TV. Yeesh.

    I agree whole-heartedly with the whole "it's fun" thing. I saw it today and thoroughly enjoyed it! Depp was great, and I enjoyed seeing a vampire who was, well, a VAMPIRE. :)

  • Snickers | May 12, 2012 11:16 PM

    Hear hear!

  • Rochelle | May 11, 2012 10:51 PMReply

    Well n all honesty, it would be difficult to make a true traditional Dark Shadows Movie. The only problem is that there is SO much story line with the wonderful series, it would be difficult to fit it in. That being said, they advertised it as a comedy. At least they did that. It was a funny film, and somewhat of an introduction for today's generation into Dark Shadows. It's a wonderful show, but I can say with some certainty that there are a lot of kids and young adults in today;s generation who wouldn't watch it. It wouldn't hold their interest with the special effects, the lack of sex, vulgarity and violence. It was toned down for that era. All in all it was a funny film, to anyone who is actually disappointed, you never watched the trailers. (They have those for a reason you know).

  • lenij | May 11, 2012 4:36 AMReply

    Saw Dark Shadows yesterday and it didn't live up to any of my expectations. It's so messy, I don't even know where to begin. I thought this one is going to be much better than Alice (also disappointing). Depp has his moments but there a lot of painful and uncomfortable scenes. Love Eva Green though, i think she's the only bright light in the tunnel. They're even setting it up so that if Tim decided that he wants another big pay check they'll have a sequel (sigh).

  • Penny Johnson | May 14, 2012 5:08 AM

    I agree that DS the movie was a major dissapointment~and I was not alone! The theater was crowded when the movie started and slowly people began to drift out - those that sat to the bitter end felt a refund of the ticket price was not out of order. The characters were distorted and silly. all of the qualities that has made DS the series endure for decades were lost. It is a safe bet that fans will not be traveling for hundreds of miles to attend a DS the movie festivals - but they will for the tv series as they have for decades!

  • Mila | May 10, 2012 3:51 PMReply

    Has anybody on here saw or read interview with Tim about this movie.
    He didn't want to recreate Dark Shadows series. He wanted to make a movie that is funny and enjoyable and that makes fun of vampires, supernatural and itself. And he did it.
    It is not meant to be masterpeace. Lot of haters here.
    P.S. Twilight is disgusting and please do not compare it with Tim Burton's films.

  • gurlbye | May 10, 2012 3:37 AMReply

    flop opinion, stay pressed like a panini

  • Arwen | May 10, 2012 3:25 AMReply

    To Cirkusfolk...personally I liked Big Fish but only some of Burton's films. I never liked Edward Scissorhands. I thought it was disgusting. I did like Alice in Wonderland though and a couple others. I haven't seen Dark Shadows and I do not intend to because other than using character names, it is NOT Dark Shadows. They destroyed it by what they did to it. I don't know what Depp and Burton think at times to make such changes to a story that has a cult following. This was a hair-brained idea to make it a spoof and basically corrupt the original story line. It isn't worth seeing as Dark Shadows. They should have changed all the character names and location and made an independent horror-comedy because what they did do will piss off a lot of hardcore fans such as myself. I have seen enough in trailers and reviews to know I would be upset watching this travesty.

  • Christopher Bell | May 10, 2012 8:16 AM

    That is, without a doubt, my favorite assessment of "Edward Scissorhands."

  • cirkusfolk | May 9, 2012 11:17 AMReply

    And I assume in time you'll also say Big Fish isn't good, another film I didn't like yet critics did. Face it, Burton has made 5 good films: Pee Wee, Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood..that is it. No not Batman Returns, no not Sleepy Hollow...only the 5 I said.

  • cirkusfolk | May 9, 2012 11:12 AMReply

    Ha, now all the sudden everyone doesn't like Sweeney Todd? I remember people swooning over it when it came out, and it did get good reviews by the critics. I myself did not like it and always stood by my opinion. Glad to see you all coming around now.

  • caro | May 9, 2012 10:56 AMReply

    i live in France and i saw the movie this morning .
    It's fun and Eva Green steals the show and every one seems to have fun times.
    There is no real plot or motivation but it's not endless

  • Marko | May 9, 2012 8:31 AMReply

    But Kevin Jagernauth kept sounding so excited for this!

  • Kevin | May 10, 2012 7:34 AM

    I was! But yeah, this is disappointing. I didn't dislike it as much as Todd but I'd probably give it a C.

  • Kob | May 9, 2012 4:05 AMReply

    Just one thing I would like to know. The review blames a lack of story, no follow-throughs on what it suggests and poor handling of its characters, and yet the overwhelming criticism is of Burton? What about Seth-Grahame Smith and John August's role in this apparent disappointment. Why is Burton made out to be the villain of the piece Todd?

  • joe | May 9, 2012 2:15 AMReply

    do you hate these guy? you did not very bad about twilight. if you hate , don't try to transfer this sense to other .

  • Arwen | May 10, 2012 3:33 AM

    I am thinking English is not your first language. I am a big Dark Shadows fan but what they did is NOT Dark Shadows...what it is, is something like "Vampires Suck." It is a satirical version of the original and NOT what people were waiting to see. As for Twilight, that has nothing to do with Dark Shadows. The original and all the other remakes were good but this is NOT. If you are not a Twilight fan fine but don't lay that stuff on this and the fact these people reviewed it better. It deserved to be reviewed better. People were expecting because the topic was vampires that it would be more in line with 30 Days of Night or whatever version of Dracula they liked, excepting Coppola's which didn't follow the book. It wasn't a horror movie perse but a paranormal romance. It is about vampires but more about the romance that starts up between a 17 year old young lady and a vampire that was changed while he was still young. People are taken back merely by the skin glittering in UV light...big deal but it has nothing to do with this review. The trailer is an example of how much this movie stinks...

  • Lucy | May 9, 2012 1:54 AMReply

    Sad to read Tim Burton made such charming, whimsical films in the past. What happened Tim? And same with Johnny Depp What's Eating Gilbert grape? Where did that Depp go? I miss that guy and Tim too. Such talent but they are slowly disappearing into caricatures.

  • Chuck | May 9, 2012 1:06 AMReply

    I saw "Alice and Wonderland" and, you're right, it was utterly incoherent, boring and non-whimsical. A lot of Burton's stuff is like that -- it looks great, but it's empty and incoherent and choppy ("Mars Attacks"). Having said that, "Ed Wood" is one of my favorite movies; I guess if you make enough movies, one or two of them accidentally turn out to be great.

  • Bill the Lizard | May 9, 2012 12:27 AMReply

    " unfocused mess -- a top-notch piece of production and costume design in search of a story."
    Doesn't this describe the last several Tim Burton movies? All icing - NO CAKE!

  • jimmiescoffee | May 8, 2012 10:02 PMReply

    @BONZOB ...i like 'mars attacks'...... 'charlie and the chocolate factory' ... 'planet of the apes'... 'alice in wonderland' and 'dark shadows' are big budget messes if you ask me

  • Dryer | May 8, 2012 9:59 PMReply

    Burton's been on a downward trend since Planet of The Apes. The guys become a studio property to produce merchandise for Tweens at Spencer Gift outlets. Im just glad I grew up on the Tim Burton of PeeWee, Batman & Beetlejuice, when his name actually meant something. Now all I can do is laugh when I see kids getting served trailers with lines like 'From The Director of Alice In Wonderland' and truly feel sorry for their choice in movies.

  • lolitahaze | May 8, 2012 9:29 PMReply

    Tim Burton has never been that good of a filmmaker. He's existed by stealing the ideas and designs of artists like Edward Gorey for a long time. Now he's completely out of ideas and people are finally starting to notice his desperation and lack of ability. About time.

  • dan Demianiw | May 9, 2012 10:52 AM

    you are so right about Tim Burton not a good filmmaker.

  • Chuck | May 9, 2012 1:09 AM

    I was visiting some friends in Seattle a few years back, and I went to a party at this couple's house -- and they had these little figurines, of their own design, that looked almost exactly like characters in "Nightmare Before Christmas." They told me that Tim Burton had seen and rejected these little dolls -- but then, apparently, he copied their design, offering them neither credit nor compensation. What a tangled web we weave.

  • Bill the Lizard | May 9, 2012 12:44 AM

    DING! We've got a winner! Did you hit the dormouse on the head or what! (I'm not being sarcastic - I 100% agree with you.) He also takes established time-tested properties and degrades them, instead of improving or refreshing them. He weakened the strengths of Alice in Wonderland (I guess Lewis Carroll didn't get it right), Sweeney Todd (Tobias goes from a tragic man/child character to the happy-go-lucky Artful Dodger), Charlie and the Chacolate Factory (Where's Slugworth?), Planet of the Apes (Too much to comment) and Corpse Bride (A very slender short ghost story is padded out to the point of trying an audience's patience.) Oh, why bother with "Dark Shadows"?

  • Joan P. Higgins | May 8, 2012 9:04 PMReply

    I agree completely!!

  • Stealth | May 8, 2012 8:58 PMReply

    Did we see the same movie? This is a fantastically fun movie, that makes fun of itself - johnny shined .. It shows how great Eva Green is- go cover an action film... Seems like your reviews are more geared for guns girls and bs... geez!!!!

  • Arwen | May 10, 2012 3:43 AM

    If you liked this movie fine. If you are a young person you may have heard of Dark Shadows but perhaps never watched the soap. It was a big hit and many have watched the re-runs and remakes that have been done. All were done in seriousness. Burton and Depp have come along and turned it into a comedy and from what I have seen of it made it silly. If you are not a fan of the original it probably will not bother you but it bothers me because Depp has been talking about getting the Dan Curtis rights for a few years now and implied he was a big fan of the original. If he was he wouldn't have made it into a comedy farce of the original. It's kind a like the people who remade Fright Night and screwed that one up as well by straying too far from the original premise and making it hardcore horror for the most part and casting the wrong person as the vampire. They made a mess of this remake and that is that. This review is on the money. Barnabas Collins was never shown white faced or making quips about was a serious story. It pisses me off that they turned the story into a joke.

  • Marie | May 9, 2012 5:55 PM

    Thanks ! I saw it too , and i really like it ! for those who don't like "alice in wonderland" or another movie, or if you say that Burton is not a good filmmaker (which is not real), why did you go see this movie ? I mean, don't come here and say crap, if all you have to say is just useless words which means nothing.
    If you like Tim Burton, you will love this movie, because it's full of craziness, of happiness, those crazy little things that make us forget everything and have a good time. It make us think about the world and smile. It make us happy, and then we're just thanksfull that every movie is not just there for being a blockbuster or whatever, but just to be a piece of art. But if you don't know the art of Burton, you cannot see it. And that's so bad. Cause Tim Burton is not "a" filmmaker. He is "the" filmmaker. Not one do the same thing as him, am i wrong ?Plus, I have to say soundtracks were amazing, and every single actor is taking us in their own caracter, and that was not an easy thing.
    So stop saying bad things about it, or if you want to, don't do it here. Because it's seems like you don't like Burton or that you were expecting for more. You are not talking about a film like avengers or another.
    P:S: This movie let me loved vampires.

  • canali | May 9, 2012 9:57 AM

    puh-lease....go and watch the DS tv series or 'house of dark shadows'...if the makers of mission impossible could be faithful in tone to that great franchise, despite this generation not knowing it, then so could have seth and burton...but what do you expect with 'abraham lincoln; vampire hunter' wtf? what is next to 'dumb us down', ''Moses: Egyptian mummy slayer''? ...sheesh.

  • bonzob | May 8, 2012 9:01 PM

    You are clearly a longtime Playlist reader if you know about their love of guns girls and bs.

  • jimmiescoffee | May 8, 2012 7:51 PMReply

    what the fuck happened to you burton? all being said, you've only made 4 bad films (this included) but its getting weird now. remakes of everything? including your own SHIT?!?

  • Marie | May 10, 2012 7:43 AM

    You know what ? I liked it. If you didn't, well it's ok, but stop saying the same things in every comments. I liked those songs, 'cause i liked the 70', and I liked the tv show too, and that's not the reason why I have to say, even without seeing it, that it's crap.

  • bonzob | May 8, 2012 8:33 PM

    I presume Mars Attacks, Apes, and Alice are the other three? While those are definitely his biggest failures, Corpse Bride ain't exactly Nightmare Before Christmas, Charlie falls apart after the first act, Sweeney Todd is flat and uninspired, and Sleepy Hollow is aggressively mediocre.

    Burton hasn't made a great film since Ed Wood, which was what, 17 years ago now?

  • Oogle monster | May 8, 2012 7:25 PMReply

    This makes me so sad. I loved Sweeney Todd and I really don't get all the hate for Alice in Wonderland. Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands will live on.

  • canali | May 8, 2012 7:20 PMReply

    most of us die hard DS fans had already imagined this massacre from 'burton the butcher of seville'....wasn't his destruction of that other classic 'planet of the apes' enough?...puh-lease burton, save your 'reimaginings' for home movies or the indi front...or your journal...not the big screen.
    ...too bad burton didn't have the gonads to stay true to the original...heck if the makers of 'mission impossible' could (despite this generation not being familiar with the franchise) then why couldn't burton the butcher?

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