Johnny Depp hasn’t headlined a good movie in years. Sure, I half liked last year’s “Pirates” sequel, and “Rum Diary” had its moments, but seriously his on-screen capital is all but used up. And re-teaming him with Tim Burton in “Dark Shadows” fails to give his career any additional jolt. “Shadows” has plenty of Depp’s weird allure and, yet, seems to be missing absolutely everything else.
“Dark Shadows” is the tongue in cheek big screen adaptation of the 1960s TV soap opera that has taken on cult status. Fans of the original likely caught it in reruns or are getting on in years. And since the fan base is dwindling, Tim Burton and company probably felt they could goof on it for camp laughs providing Depp with a vehicle to, let’s face it, be Depp. But right from the talk heavy opening sequence, “Dark Shadows” is not the least bit engaging. And the foreign feeling permeates the rest of the picture making every scene disconnected with the one that follows.
The story involves the cursed Barnabas Collins (a pale and pointy eared Depp) returning from the grave after almost 200 years locked in a coffin. How has he survived that long? Why he’s a vampire, of course. Dumped into the world of 1972, Collins reunites with his relatives who have fallen on hard times. The massive Collins’ mansion is in disrepair and the family fish business has been shuttered. What’s worse is that the witch that cursed Collins and made him a vampire now runs the town and operates a competing and much more successful fishery. Barnabas has some work to do to restore his family’s honor.
What could have been a fun romp with some hidden satiric meaning really just becomes a series of mildly amusing sight gags. The many expressions of Depp are revealed over and over and his constant droll of old world language grates on ones nerves after the first 30 minutes. But the real shame is that the story is so very one note that it has no weight making us care very little even when Jonny Lee Miller, playing a worthless father figure to a troubled 11 year old, makes a heartless decision. We chuckle and forget about the exchange immediately after it transpires.
The entire movie devolves into one big goof, which is a pity considering that 1972 was a year filed with great historical import. Think about the events that Burton could have teased us with: Nixon went to China; “The Godfather” premiered in theaters; the Vietnam War was raging; George Wallace was shot; the Watergate break-in fails and becomes a scandal; George Carlin is arrested for reciting those seven dirty words; following the Eagleton debacle, among other things, Richard Nixon is re-elected in a landslide; and the list goes on and on. Think of how much fun Burton could have had with the time period. Instead, we get a bland and purposely isolated Maine setting to go with the uninvolving and boring story-line.
Wasted are the actors who certainly looked tweaked but really have little to do but react to Depp’s flavor of weirdness. And Depp alone can’t save the picture especially when the most interesting of the characters isn’t his. Teased is an edgy backstory involving Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz moving from cute but deadly “hit girl” to teen sexpot). In fact, the most promising subplot belongs to Barnabas’ love interest Victoria (Bella Heathcote). But like everything in “Dark Shadows” this takes a backseat to Depp and his constant linguistic gymnastics aping some kind of Old World speech pattern. When the third act finally drops, the story goes completely off the rails making little sense, grasping for resolution where an action packed conclusion is called for to meet formula but hasn’t been properly set up in the previous acts that proceeded. The movie is too loose to even be called a “mess” because the level of talent is so high, this has to be exactly the kind of sketch comedy they intended. And the approach is an utter failure.
With yet another weak high profile release under his belt, this one unlikely to ring huge returns at the box office, Johnny Depp has to find a good story to recapture our hearts and minds. It’s a good thing that his next film, “The Lone Ranger,” doesn’t have him playing the title character. With the pressure off, Depp can still be Depp and support rather than carry, because with “Dark Shadows,” we learn that too much Depp can be a very bad thing.