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Learn to Leave the Past Alone

Dark Shadows (2012)

Peter Mountain/Warner Brothers Pictures

One might imagine that a partnership between Tim Burton and vampires would yield compelling results. Mr. Burton’s appeal derives from his distinct imagination and the way he combines dark themes and youthful exuberance into genre movies. Films such as “Alice in Wonderland,” “Big Fish” and “Ed Wood,” illustrate Mr. Burton’s signature brand of aestheticism and complexity. Good or bad, few would describe Mr. Burton as conventional. But his newest film, “Dark Shadows,” never establishes any sort of originality. Flat characters, predictable plotting and boring action sequences make Mr. Burton’s latest an ordinary waste of two hours.

Based on an ABC soap opera from the late ’60s, “Dark Shadows” begins with a prologue set in the 18th century. The Collins family builds a profitable fishing business in Liverpool, England and moves to Maine to expand its enterprise. Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) is the heir to the family fortune, but he spends his time fooling around with a housemaid, Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green). When Angelique asks Barnabas to commit to a serious relationship, he rejects her and starts courting an aristocratic girl. Angelique, who happens to be an immortal witch and practitioner of black magic, curses Barnabas by turning him into a vampire and burying him underground in a chained coffin.

Cut to 1972: A group of construction workers accidentally dig up the coffin and free Barnabas. He drinks the blood of the workers, killing them, and returns to his family’s mansion unaware of how much time has passed. Two centuries later, the Collins fortune has disappeared. Angelique has created a rival fishing company that took away all of the Collins’ customers. Barnabas teams up with his remaining descendants, led by Elizabeth Collins (Michelle Pfeiffer), to rebuild his family’s legacy.

Much of the film’s humor comes from 1970s’ pop-culture references, including lava lamps, McDonald’s and Alice Cooper. Initially, the jokes are wink-wink funny. An 18th-century vampire doesn’t know what a lava lamp is provokes audience laughter. Vampire doesn’t know what hippies are elicits less laughter. Vampire doesn’t know what a television is garners no laughs at all. Mr. Depp knows how to portray offbeat characters (Edward Scissorhands, Jack Sparrow, Hunter S. Thompson), but he can’t make the same joke funny for 120 minutes. He always brings energy on-screen, but Barnabas never develops into a character with depth; and when the protagonist is boring, the movie is not going to do well. His motivations are mostly apathetic, and as a result audiences will treat him with apathy.

The supporting characters also suffer from a lack of depth. Ms. Green doesn’t quite know how to play the voracious femme fatale role. She is stiff in moments that require comfortable sexuality. Ms. Pfeiffer wears a constant pay-attention-to-my-pursed-lips look that is more wooden than mysterious. Chloë Grace Moretz, who plays Elizabeth’s daughter, keeps her face stuck in a bored scowl for the entirety of her performance.

There are a few minor bright spots worth noting. Helena Bonham Carter appears briefly as the Collins’ in-house psychologist, and her character’s amusing selfishness gives the film a much-needed injection of ambiguity. Additionally, Jackie Earle Haley excels as the bumbling caretaker who is indifferent to the presence of a vampire. His role fits perfectly; jokes doled out in short bursts to maximize the effect on the audience.

Ultimately, the film’s success or failure depends on the direction of Mr. Burton. Visually, he creates a powerful atmosphere. The characters are pale, and the sky always seems to be turning a darker shade of gray. Maine has never looked so gloomy. There are a few musical montages with the potential to be impactful, but they end up having little to do with the actual narrative. For example, one of the montages shows Barnabas restoring his family’s run-down factory; yet after the sequence, the factory becomes a red herring. The real problem here is that Mr. Burton never gets his hands dirty with the story. “Dark Shadows” is not really dark at all, so by the time the big action-packed conclusion arrives, the plot has nowhere to go except deus ex machina (twice). It’s not surprising that Mr. Burton is producing the upcoming “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” He’s trying to generate buzz amongst vampire fans, appeal to the masses and the “Twilight” tweens, but one gets the feeling his heart isn’t in it. I’ll let you finish the vampire metaphor.


Opens on May 11 in the United States and Britain.  

Directed by Tim Burton; written by Seth Grahame-Smith, based on a story by John August and Mr. Grahame-Smith and the television series created by Dan Curtis; director of photography, Bruno Delbonnel; edited by Chris Lebenzon; music by Danny Elfman; production design by Rick Heinrichs; costumes by Colleen Atwood; produced by Richard D. Zanuck, Graham King, Johnny Depp, Christi Dembrowski and David Kennedy; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A. and 12A by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Johnny Depp (Barnabas Collins), Michelle Pfeiffer (Elizabeth Collins Stoddard), Helena Bonham Carter (Dr. Julia Hoffman), Eva Green (Angelique Bouchard), Jackie Earle Haley (Willie Loomis), Jonny Lee Miller (Roger Collins), Bella Heathcote (Victoria Winters /Josette DuPres), Chloë Grace Moretz (Carolyn Stoddard), Gully McGrath (David Collins), Ray Shirley (Mrs. Johnson), Christopher Lee (Clarney), Alice Cooper (Alice Cooper) and Charlotte Spencer (Coat-Check Girl).


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