Retro Review: DARK SHADOWS (2012){0}

Here’s how to create a true stinker, in Hollywood terms:

A. Purchase the rights to a creaky old “cult favorite,” one that means virtually nothing to modern audiences (aside from a vaguely familiar title), but still maintains a loyal fan following. (These are the people who will do all your free advertising soon.)

B. Hand the project to a filmmaker who has grown lazy and complacent under your employment, in this case we’re talking about director Tim Burton and his frequent collaborator Johnny Depp. Let the director do whatever the hell he wants, mainly because his last several films (with the help of Mr. Depp) have grossed about $5 billion combined. The formula is all that matters, you see. “Tim Burton” + “Johnny Depp” + “remake of something you’ve heard of” = “instant blockbuster.” (See also: Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Planet of the Apes)

C. Turn a dated and, yes, sort of campy old TV series, one best described as a vampire soap opera, into a mirthless, worthless cacophony of empty-headed “fish out of water” gags. Johnny Depp plays a vampire who has been asleep for 200 years, you see, and when he awakens in 1972, the audience is duly assaulted with A) an endless array of early-’70s pop tunes, B) unpleasant characters in garish clothing, and C) a ceaseless deluge of jokes about lava lamps, casual sexism, and the fact that Alice Cooper is a man with a woman’s name. Kid-level joke construction of material that is not for kids. Dark Shadows is not merely atonal, it’s spitefully schizophrenic, as if Burton wants the playful air of Beetlejuice but also has to make things a little bit smutty for the grown-ups. 

D. Not content to turn a tongue-in-cheek soap opera into a slapstick farce with no energy whatsoever, you should also cast your comedy with several truly unfunny people. For his part, Johnny Depp is as funny as his material allows, which is why he’s likable in Pirates of the Caribbean but sort of insufferable here. The lovely Eva Green is frankly sort of terrible as the scenery-chewing villainess, while the still-great Michelle Pfeiffer is given nothing to do but stand around and semi-narrate the pointless story of how a vampire deals with wacky stuff in 1972. Also, when the director of a horror/comedy can’t find anything fun for Chloe Moretz to do, that’s another sign of trouble. Even Helena Bonham Carter, often the highlight of any film, is left to flounder in the role of a lady doctor, one that has no point, aside from the fact that there was a lady doctor in the original Dark Shadows series. If it sounds like I’m being overly cynical towards this movie, well, this movie started it.

E. Much of this could be forgiven, to some degree, anyway, if Dark Shadows had assets in other columns. Alas, no. This is a full-bore train wreck, despite (yes) some fine cinematography, production design, special effects, and musical score. But a film cannot coast on cosmetic features and a jaunty Danny Elfman score alone. Dark Shadows suffers from a miserable pace, a confused editorial approach, and a tone that wavers between ostensibly playful and smugly vulgar. The whole thing seems like it was pitched as “Austin Powers meets The Addams Family, with maybe some of that self-referential humor from The Brady Bunch Movie.” Dark Shadows is nowhere near as entertaining as that description may read on paper.

F. Bulk the whole thing up to a painful 110 minutes, thanks mainly to numerous montages set to The Carpenters and The Moody Blues, plaster the ads everywhere, and hope that the well-established box office formula hits the jackpot one more time. As a guy who grew up virtually running to see movies called Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, and Batman, it pains me to be such a bitch on Dark Shadows, but I see nothing of the old Tim Burton here. Dark Shadows is not just a bad film, it’s evidence of people who are barely even trying. And that’s what makes me angry.