Dear Dark Shadows,
Usually, the least that can be said for a Tim Burton film is that he chose style over substance. Even when that style is the same derivative nonsense he’s been pushing for well over a decade, he has that on his side. You can always tell a Tim Burton movie from any other, and usually that small dash of personality is enough to save his films from a complete write-off – at least in the eyes of his die-hard fans, I’m sure.
So when I say that I cannot imagine you offering anyone, of any stripe, anything beyond a way to waste two hours, you know how abysmal I think you are.
You are a film that evinces the idea of plot over story or narrative. You somehow manage to make gothic, period intrigue and supernatural drama rote, confused, and repellent to any concept of human interest. At almost two hours, you seem both far too long for your thin premise, and yet hopelessly abbreviated for the endless amounts of plot you hope to put forward.
Let’s make a distinction between plot and story. Plot are the elements that create the story, while the story is the full recounting of said events, given meaning and context.A plot can happen independent of the story, but it is the sinew and blood of the story that dresses the bones of the plot in something that makes the narrative seem alive, rather than rotten and dead.
You purport to tell the story of Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), cursed by a lovelorn witch to be a vampire, who escapes from two hundred years of imprisonment to help his descendants overcome their family curse. Laid over this simple tale is also that of a son missing his mother, a father neglecting his child, a daughter nipping at the bit of rebellion, a governess with a dark secret, a matriarch struggling for control, a doctor longing for her youth, and a lot of other stuff I’ve probably forgotten already.
This overabundance of plot is far from your only problem, but it is your biggest. The framing of this story is all from the point of view of a character who comes into the middle of a situation. At the same time, no one family member or other associated character knows fully the truth behind anyone else’s life. We have no inroad into the lives or motivations or even the histories of these people who we are supposed to care about.
It seems for a short while that Barnabas will be our point-of-view character, but then suddenly we are introduced to Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), who seeks Collinwood Manor as a means of starting a new life as a governess. For a while we follow her, before Barnabas comes back into the picture, and suddenly all bets are off. The story, such as it was, dissolves into a mire of isolated plot points that become introduced and resolved in the space of two scenes. Deus ex machinas seem to be the primary export of the seaside village of Collinsport, and no moment is ever given a chance to develop before it is resolved. Add to this quagmire of inert action the poorly crafted characters who never rise above their introduction or change or evolve in any way, and all an audience is left with is a stagnant, pointless mess of actions untethered to any sense of weight or purpose or meaning.
Your production design is equally stillborn and risible. The gothic manor in which much of your plot takes place is bland and cliched by Burton’s standards (and I don’t even like his standards), and a final set piece that plays off of Beetlejuice and The Haunting is not as interesting as it should have been. This manor is a character in your tale, believe it or not, and you offer it as much attention and care as you do any other character – which is to say none at all.
But perhaps there was no hope for you from the outset. To develop characters or relationships beyond simple plot, one would need to decide on a tone, and yours is all over the map, though it is probably more correct to say it’s not even on a map. Your marketing made you seem like a comedy, and yet I was never once moved to laughter, nor did I ever feel I was being particularly coached toward it. There is endless, empty drama in your tale, but the lack of emotional resonance with your characters kills any hope of my actually caring. You could try to just function as a creature feature, but the particulars of your supernatural mythology are never established, and you never bother to make anyone seem particularly concerned that they are sharing space with murderous creatures of legend. Lacking all these things – character, tone, empathy, story – means I can only sit back in abject, unengaged boredom waiting for you to finish your sad, shambling dance of a plot so I can just leave.
There were moments during your run when I wondered what anyone involved in your production was thinking. I imagined these actors getting into makeup, reading this script, saying these lines, and I was baffled at the idea that any of them could have thought they were embarking on a worthy task. Who at all could have looked at this thing they sought to create and thought it was a workable or interesting project? It’s rare that I’m stuck for a reason someone could even be involved in something – usually I can suss out an idea or a moment that would entrap someone – but in your case I can’t come to a single conclusion.
You are a movie that feels unnecessary, unwanted, unwarranted – and nothing you or any of your principles do can pull you out of the fires of those accusations. And honestly, I think that’s for the best – after all, the one of the best ways to kill a witch or a vampire is with fire, so maybe we can hope the same is true for you.
Baffled and angry,
Brian J. Roan