Once the auteur laureate of America’s outcasts, Tim Burton has lately become its leading purveyor of “Hot Topic movies”: glossy, soulless, and ready for merchandising. So I was nervous going into his latest film, the horror-comedy Dark Shadows (2012), expecting something strident and obvious. Instead I found a much better (and much more frustrating) movie than I’d imagined, one dotted by tantalizing highs and intoxicating performances but hampered by inconsistency. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s scary, but it bungles a lot of tonal shifts and never decides whether or not to take its own soap opera seriously. “Mixed bag” might be the phrase I’m looking for.
The beginning of the film sets a thick mood through Bruno Delbonnel’s smoky, monochrome visuals and the Moody Blues song “Nights in White Satin.” But Johnny Depp’s overwrought narration, introducing us his centuries-long feud with witch Eva Green, immediately gave me pause. His words are pure melodrama, yet his voice is so arch and affected, as if he can’t conceive of an 18th century romance without an ironic slant. This informs his whole performance, as manifested in his raised eyebrows and pursed lips. Contrary to critics like Andrew Street, this isn’t “flamboyant over-acting” at all. Depp’s very dry and restrained here, a far cry from his manic Jack Sparrow. But his detachment thwarts the film’s would-be tragedy.
Another stumbling block is Victoria, the nanny played by Bella Heathcote. Initially the film’s (and Depp’s) focal point, she recedes farther and farther into the background as the story’s given over to the cursed Collins clan. She never gets much of a personality, functioning mostly as Depp’s anemic object of desire. This has grave consequences during the climax, whose impact hinges on our investment in their relationship. Depp must bite his true love’s neck to save her life, and it would be so carthartic if Victoria wasn’t so underdeveloped. But she is, so it ends up feeling like the dramatic equivalent of orgasm denial. Like I said, it’s a frustrating movie.
I could expound on other shortcomings: the dumb-ass final shot, looking for all the world like a Friday the 13th sequel tease; the hippie caricatures even broader than those in Wanderlust; and Chloë Moretz’s burn-out brat routine, which gets old fast. (Not to mention her last-second “I’m a werewolf!” revelation.) But I’d rather linger over the bits and pieces that I flat-out loved. Like a clockwork diorama of howling wolves, or a deadpan POV shot of a square waffle. Sometimes I was even happily reminded of vintage Burton. In flashback, Victoria’s parents institutionalize her while standing in a rigid American Gothic pose, à la the prologue to Batman Returns. And at the climax, Green swings her head and moans, “Excuse me!” as if channeling Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice.
In fact, Green supplies a lot of the movie’s high points. Her performance is ghoulish, voluptuous, and wickedly funny. During the Collins ball, for example, she struts into the mansion wearing a devil-red dress, complemented by nebulae of purple and pink light—a visual distillation of Burton’s gloomy, gothic 1972. When the time comes to fight, she does so savagely, bringing a house full of horrors down on the vampire she still loves. (On the few occasions Dark Shadows opts to be scary and only scary, it succeeds.) Green isn’t alone in her entrancing bitchiness, either. Burton veterans Michelle Pfeiffer and Helena Bonham Carter both carve out delightful supporting turns as, respectively, a purring matriarch and the boozy psychiatrist she employs.
I don’t know if I would call Dark Shadows a “return to form,” but I also don’t think it has to be one. It’s a pleasurable movie, littered unpredictably with beauty and terror, which is enough. Despite its bad jokes, waste-of-time subplots, and limp denouement, it’s proof positive that Tim Burton, our Edward Gorey of the big screen, still has some blood left in him. Maybe next time the wit and visual invention won’t be quite so scattered.