There was a time when a new Tim Burton film was something to get unreservedly excited about – a rewarding journey into the richly imaginative and fertile mind of a master purveyor of adult fairy tales and a true auteur of fantasy. However, in recent years, the quality of his work has become so unpredictable that going to see one of his films has become the cinematic equivalent of trick or treat, and not just due to his penchant for horror and fancy dress. Treats such as Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and Big Fish were interspersed by the tediously tiresome trickery of Planet of the Apes, Alice in Wonderland, Sweeney Todd and any Batman incarnation you care to mention. Unfortunately, most of these disappointments have occurred quite recently, leading to the worrying conclusion that Burton’s razor-sharp edge may have been blunted for good.
Enter Dark Shadows, offering only more rusty nails for Burton’s once titillating coffins. Based on a gothic soap opera that originally aired on ABC from 1966 to 1971, this hugely groundbreaking series featured man-made monsters, werewolves, zombies, witches, warlocks, time travel, and a parallel universe. On paper therefore, this source material would appear to be right up Burton’s darkly-lit street: a depraved, gothic, twilight-blue setting, a plethora of emotionally twisted and scarred characters, a structure that favours mood and spectacle over plot, and once again and again and again, a pair of plum roles for both his favourite acting partner Depp and bed partner Bonham Carter.
It is 1752 and a young family are seen embarking on a sea voyage from Liverpool to the New World. In coastal Maine they establish a successful fisheries business, build a grand, gothic mansion, and become lords of all they survey. Twenty years pass and their son Barnabus (Depp) is all grown up and an inveterate playboy reaping the sexual rewards of his status and wealth. He breaks the heart of his childhood sweetheart by electing to marry another, only to find out that his jilted lover is a witch who hypnotises his bride into committing suicide. A devastated Barnabus follows suit, is summarily resurrected as a vampire by said witch, swiftly buried alive, and finally resurfaces (literally) two centuries later in the 1970s, disturbingly resembling an ageing member of a Goth boy band.
All this might seem like a spoiler, were it not for the fact that this entire sequence of events occurs within the first five minutes of the film – leaving this particular viewer gasping for breath, exhausted and utterly confused – and what follows is equally, if not more bewildering. The temperament of the film changes totally, switching inexplicably from a straight-faced gothic fantasy horror to a farcical spoof comedy that relentlessly and basely incorporates every 1970s fad imaginable for an out-of-sync Barnabus to offer inane jokes about. Barnabas’s dysfunctional descendants – all of whom hide dark and horrifying secrets that are only alluded to in the film – are no more than a series of cardboard cut-outs introduced as sounding boards for Depp’s shockingly poor stand-up routine.
Certainly the humour is intentionally slapstick and tongue-in-cheek, and there is pleasure to be had in seeing a VW camper van full of hippies slaughtered mercilessly, but balancing horror and comedy is no easy task, and here the result is reminiscent of the dire Death Becomes Her. There is thus absolutely nothing dark about this film and the only thing lurking in the shadows is a huge amount of wasted potential. A man-made monster may well be a feature retained from the original series, however in this case the man is Burton and the monster is Dark Shadows.
Dir: Tim Burton; US comedy, 2012, 113 mins; Johnny Depp, Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter
Premieres May 10