There’s a wonderful scene in Ed Wood, my nomination for Tim Burton’s best film, when Wood, the worst director of all time, runs into Orson Welles in a restaurant. Wood is working on Glen or Glenda, Welles on Citizen Kane, and the two commiserate about the difficulties of securing financing for their films. Wood sighs and asks the maestro, “Is it all worth it?” Welles responds, “It is when it works,” and encourages the young director: ”Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?”
I’d like to ask Burton the same question. I’ve spent the past week catching up on the director’s filmography, which is littered with other people’s visions: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Batman, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd, Alice in Wonderland, and the latest, Dark Shadows. It’s not that Burton — or any other director — isn’t capable of leaving his own fingerprints on someone else’s work, but why bother? Did he always envision Willy Wonka as a Michael Jackson impersonator or little Alice as a sword-wielding dragon-slayer?
I wish Tim Burton would be much more ambitious, or much less so. I love his cartoonishly macabre sensibility, but wonder why he can’t marry that to a grown-up story with higher emotional stakes than “Is Johnny Depp going to get the kewpie-eyed girl?” His juvenile taste in scripts make me wary of his movies as an audience member — so much so that I wonder if he should ditch narrative altogether and just focus on making it big in the art world. Needless to say, I wasn’t a fan of Dark Shadows, a film so busy and inconsistent it should have had Jason Statham in it. Here are some lasting impressions:
1. There were too many storylines. Let’s see if I can count them all:
- Barnabus Collins (Johnny Depp) is a vampire freed from his coffin after 200 years; he has trouble adjusting to life in the Groovy Seventies.
- Angelique (Eva Green), the jilted witch who cursed Barnabus with vampirism, is still alive and gives her former lover two choices: love her or die.
- Barnabus falls in love with Victoria (Bella Heathcote), the new nanny for the Collins family, who looks exactly like his murdered 18th-century wife.
- Both Victoria and her new charge David (David McGrath) can see ghosts, and must help the ghost that haunts the Collins mansion find peace.
- David’s psychiatrist, Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), is a loon who seduces Barnabus.
- The Collins’ house, family business, and reputation are in disrepair; Barnabus, as the new paterfamilias, must fix them.
I haven’t yet mentioned three of the other Collins family members: matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), nightmare teen Carolyn (Chloe Moretz), and David’s absent father Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), who each have small storylines of their own. The script is like a kid high on sugar: there’s a lot of running around, but only in circles, and then it suddenly falls flat at the end.
2. It’s terribly unfunny. This is, again, largely the script’s fault. Screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith’s approach to comedy is to introduce a bad joke, then tell it several more times. The film is full of zingers and gags, but it’s really just the same five over and over again. The idea of the 1790s (Barnabus) and the 1970s (his descendants) making fun of each other is brilliant in theory, but the execution fails at every level. I felt especially sorry for Johnny Depp, a hilarious actor when given the chance, for being saddled with clunkers like, ”You may strategically place your wonderful lips upon my posterior and kiss it repeatedly!” and tired jokes about hairy hippies and Alice Cooper being a woman.
3. The vampire angle suckssssssss. One of the best things about the recent vampire trend is writers and directors tripping over one another to come up with a new twist on vampires. Barnabus’ vampirism is a crucial factor in several of the storylines, but the film explores it so superficially and glosses over it so quickly when it becomes morally inconvenient that Twilight‘s Edward looks like an ethics scholar in comparison. Barnabus claims he hates having to feed, but harbors no remorse for the people he’s already killed, because, haha, they’re just hippies and blue-collar workers! Likewise, he calls his vampirism a curse, but forces it on people he loves against their will for purely selfish reasons. And Barnabus isn’t an antihero — he’s a square, family-values, father-knows-all type who’d probably vote Republican if he could go out in the sun. That’s not moral ambiguity, just lazy character development.
4. I’m so tired of watching Johnny Depp make out with doll-faced hotties half his age. Sure, Depp looks much younger than his 48 years, but his middle age really starts to show when he declares love to an anonymous ingenue hired for her childlike looks. Accordingly, Burton’s wingmannish handpicking of doe-eyed young women for his friend to mack on is starting to feel skeezy. The persistence of the pedo-bait look in Burton’s films is all the more frustrating because neither Burton’s vampish ex-wife Lisa Marie nor his current spouse Helena Bonham Carter look like scared little girls, so he clearly finds other types of women attractive. IS THIS DEPP’S DOING?
5. The movie isn’t a total loss; the production design and special effects are gorgeously creepy. The Collins mansion is a wood-paneled nightmarescape, and the seventies-era clothes are fun to look at. The biggest eye-treat, however, is the climactic fight between Barnabus and Angelique, when Angelique begins to crack and crumble like an egg shell. At least two hundred years old, she’s a hollow creature, and each blow chips away at yet another sliver of her britle exterior to reveal the blackness underneath. The sound design adds marvelously to the effect, as do Angelique’s disjointed, unnatural movements (a combination of Eva Green’s flexibility and CGI). It’s a marvelous, singular spectacle. Too bad you have to sit through 100 minutes of turgid nonsense to see it.