Johnny Depp As A Vampire; How Is That Not Interesting?
Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando
It's hard to believe that in the twenty-plus years of Mr. Depp's career he has never played a vampire. With Dark Shadows, we get a taste of not only what Depp can bring to the role of a brooding, blood-thirsty monster, but also how much more he could have done with the part had the film been entrusted to a more capable director.
It has been argued that Tim Burton is more of a production designer than a director, a point which these days is hard to prove otherwise. His films always look amazing. Even if you did not know who the director of a particular film was going into it, the first image onscreen would most assuredly tell you it's Burton. As a result of his ability to bring true atmosphere to his films, I feel as though sometimes our immediate reaction is to grade his films solely on their look, instead of their plot. As Manohla Dargis of the New York Times notes in her very positive review of the film, "...Traditional storytelling has never been Mr. Burton’s specialty or perhaps interest. What counts in his work is the telling, not the tale. He isn’t big on narrative logic, coherence and thrust focusing instead on his imagery..". Typically it's the more formalistic directors like David Lynch or Guy Maddin that are graded on this curve because they're films are all about the visuals, not necessarily a cohesive story. Burton on the other hand has openly stated that he would not know a good script from a bad one, thus interesting visuals in place of good storytelling does not put him in the same category as Lynch or Maddin.
The case can be made that the films of Burton's that we love (we all have our favorites) were the result of pure luck. He managed to pick scripts that were the perfect match for his style of directing and for many years we looked forward to what he would do next. It's unfortunate now, however, that my approach to Tim Burton has shifted from excitement to apprehension. Dark Shadows sadly reinforces that.
The story is less of a vampire movie and more of a misunderstood monster movie; yet another point that reminds us of Tim Burton's better films like Edward Scissorhands or Beetlejuice. Depp plays Barnabas Collins, an 18th Century vampire who awakens in 1972 after being locked up and buried in a coffin by the local townspeople of Collinsport. As a young man Barnabas breaks the heart of one of his servants, Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), who also happens to be a witch. She curses his family, the result of which leads to the untimely deaths of his parents and the woman he loves, Josette du Pres (Bella Heathcote). She then condemns Barnabas to be a vampire, destined to live forever in agony.
It is at this point that the film never decides what it wants to be. It starts off as a tragedy, then becomes a fish-out-of-water tale with doses of physical comedy, and in its final act becomes a cluttered mess of chaos. You never know if the film is trying to be funny or if it wants to be taken seriously; once again the result of a director who after almost thirty years in the business still does not know what he is doing.
The supporting characters are underserved. Michelle Pfieffer as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard does not serve much of a purpose as the family matriarch; Helena Bonham Carter as Dr. Julia Hoffman shows up sporadically throughout the film as the family's live-in psychiatrist; Chloë Grace Moretz as Carolyn Stoddard is actually quite unlikeable and has a deus ex machina quality moment at the end of the movie that does not work; Jackie Earle Haley as Willie Loomis, the caretaker of the Collins estate, does nothing effective. In addition, Bella Heathcote, who plays both Victoria Winters in the present and Josette in the past, at first comes across as the film's primary protagonist after the prologue and ends up having maybe ten minutes of screen-time by the end of the movie. There's too much going on in Dark Shadows and not enough talent behind the camera.
The directors that continue to make us scratch our head with every new film they make know what they're doing. They know the film they want to make and the story they want to tell, however confusing it may be - they're artists. Tim Burton, while talented in his own respect, needs to perfect the craft of directing or continue to suffer bad movie after bad movie. Dark Shadows is just another reminder that Burton's gift for visual stimuli is no substitute for his lack of focus on story and character.