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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

2 thoughts on “Dear Dark Shadows,”

  1. Ilker Yücel says:

    And all of this is why I refuse to see this film.

    First of all, absolutely right about Burton’s emphasis of style over substance, especially given his oeuvre of the last decade – with the exception of Big Fish, they are all remakes of classic films and TV series. It was forgivable with Batman in 1989 since he was a director on the rise and still had several original stories to tell – Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Ed Wood… all of that has officially been thrown out of the window in favor of being Hollywood’s go-to guy to make some quirky, spooky, kitschy, bombastic remakes that somehow gain favor among fans who otherwise are touting the same “I hate remakes” rhetoric they are betraying by supporting Burton.

    Second of all, the original Dark Shadows ran from 1966 – 1971 (along with an ill-fated re-imagining in 1991) – five years worth of story and character development crammed into a two-hour space? It was folly from the start. Many will not remember Dark Shadows unless they – like me – grew up on a healthy diet of syndication and reruns. The Sci-Fi Channel did in fact feature the show for quite some time, and while I was never able to watch it from beginning to end, thus leaving me in confusion as to the progression of the story, the show was engrossing nonetheless. To encompass all of that into two hours? It can’t be done, plain and simple. AKIRA was over 2,000 pages, yet the animated film (at two hours) worked because the director knew to concentrate on specific characters and plot elements and simplify the story enough to work within that space. Same with David Lynch’s version of Dune. From the sound of it, Dark Shadows doesn’t even attempt this. For shame!

    Thirdly, much as I enjoy a director who has a set cast of actors that keep making returns to his films, this is getting to be ridiculous. I can understand if he must keep casting his blasted waif *cough* I mean wife (Helena Bonham Carter) and the prospect of continuing to work with the great Christopher Lee (and why not, since the guy is almost 90 is lookin’ pretty damn haggard with all those liver spots… who knows how long that guy’s got, so milk it up) holds a certain appeal. As well, why give up on a good actor like Johnny Depp when you are churning out box office hit after box office hit. But there’s very little variety in his films anymore – again, quirky, spooky, kitschy, bombastic – so his actors tend to keep playing the same types, complete with lots of makeup to make them look like attractive ghouls. He offers no opportunity for variety or for them to really show their range of abilities as actors, and while that may be because of his lack thereof as a director, it’s still infuriating.
    As least when Kurosawa cast the same actors over and over again, he gave them all different roles, different types of characters to play. Toshiro Mifune would be the young and virile warrior of Seven Samurai and then an elderly foundry worker in Record of a Living Being, to the wandering wisecracking ronin in Yojimbo/Sanjuro to the pacifist humanist doctor in Red Beard. Johnny Depp’s in a Tim Burton movie? Bring out the foundation and the hairspray!!!

  2. Ric says:

    I have been a big of Burton over the years and was one of the few people I know that really liked Alice in Wonderland and see it as a high point in his career.

    I have seen the original Dark Shadows in reruns and it was bad even in the hey day of soaps. Now when I contemplate seeing this I feel soiled and dirty and cant bring myself to do it.

    I would hate to write off Burton as a DOA director, but at this point depending on what comes next from his twisted mind, I may have to turn my back. You’re taking a lot of hits for the team of late Bri and it is appreciated.

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