Tim Burton isn’t very central to my view of cinema. Even in his heyday, when most cinephiles were gushing over Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, I think my reaction was along the lines of, where’s the beef? I liked his 1994 film about Ed Wood, but it already seemed to suggest a fear of grappling with anything close to real people. So it proved, and in recent years Burton seems almost desperate for suitably outlandish subjects: efforts like Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were clearly going through the motions, albeit at a high level, like a cinematic God who never moved beyond creating different types of monkeys and parrots. The main exception was his version of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, which took a surprisingly scrupulous approach to the material, and stands as one of the best filmed stage musicals of recent years (not a high bar admittedly).
Nothing about his new film Dark Shadows suggested a break in this pattern – what need could there be to resurrect a mostly dimly remembered late 60’s daytime serial? Certainly audiences didn’t see any; they generally went to The Avengers instead. The movie seemed in advance to have a static, recessive kind of feeling to it, as if it were only passing through theatres as a courtesy on the way to joining that exhibition of Burton props and artifacts that occupied the Bell Lightbox for a few months when it first opened. I only went to see it because my parents – in their 70’s – were visiting and we wanted to see a movie together: they’d already seen The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, so this seemed like the most suitable choice from what was left. If you knew my parents – or hey, if you knew me – you’d see this doesn’t say too much for the film’s cultural relevance.
As the new film tells the tale, Barnabas Collins sailed with his parents from Liverpool to the New World in the 18th century; the family’s fishing business flourished, spawning the coastal town of Collinsport and a huge family mansion. But Barnabas got into the bad books of a family maid, Angelique, by spurning her love; because she happened to be a witch, she killed off his parents and his fiancée and turned him into a vampire. In 1972, a construction crew digs up his coffin; he slays them all (a vampire gets pretty thirsty after two centuries) and heads back to his ancestral home, now in disrepair and occupied by the remaining dregs of the Collins dynasty. Barnabas sets on restoring the family to its former glory, a task aided by the treasures he retrieves from the house’s recesses, but hindered by being, you know, a 200-year old vampire, and by the fact that the new commercial power in Collinsport is now Angelique, still around and looking as good as ever.
Well, as I said, nothing about that plot conveys any urgent reason for resurrecting this material. The film’s a bit more persuasive than I expected though; if it’s something of a shame that Burton only seems at ease in highly manufactured landscapes, Dark Shadows reminded me how lovingly and expertly he plans and polishes that terrain. It reminds you of the cliché about the camera as a paintbrush: while your run-of-the-mill directors are barely out of the painting-by-numbers category, Burton conjures up one dazzling canvas after another, and even manages to make them all feel joined up. The way in which it’s dazzling is often familiar – lots of looking down at things from a great height, for instance, and not always avoiding the sense of too much digital paint being applied – but still, it’s as close as modern cinema comes to the sweeping pleasures of an old-time pictorial epic.
Burton also enjoys the 1972 setting for a while, resurrecting old Shell logos, putting Superfly and Deliverance into the local theatre, and spinning some good deadpan jokes – the notion that a blood-stained vampire could wander through town at night without anyone really noticing him, or the idea that Alice Cooper looks the same now as he did then. I don’t think I’ll ever see the Carpenters again without remembering how Barnabas reacts to the TV, commanding the “tiny songstress” to step out and reveal herself. This aspect of the film peters out rather quickly though, to be replaced by a more generic Addams Family-type weirdness.
But then there’s the cast. Johnny Depp’s acting career has much the same limitations as Burton’s directorial one, partly of course because the two are so often the same thing. You can’t but admire someone so resourceful and inventive, but when you actually scroll through his list of movies, you feel like you’re coughing up M&M’s. It wasn’t always like this – there was a time when his emphasis seemed to be on working with great directors, like Roman Polanski in The Ninth Gate and Jim Jarmusch in Dead Man, returning periodically to Burton for a mainstream visibility boost. But since the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie almost ten years ago, it’s been mostly dire (if lucrative), and his more serious projects like Michael Mann’s Public Enemies only made him seem lightweight. Depp’s starting to remind me of the story about how Peter Sellers decided to play James Bond in Casino Royale without any tricks, the way Cary Grant would have done, but came across as merely a blank.
Still, Sellers’ tricks, when they worked, were awe-inspiring, and so it is with Depp: his Barnabas is a stunningly precise creation, with not a breath seeming out of place. Everyone around him seems especially well cast too, and for a variety of reasons: Eva Green plays Angelique the old-fashioned full-throttle way; Michelle Pfeiffer as the surviving head of the household is chilly and iconic; Helena Bonham Carter, as a psychiatrist who came for a short-term assignment and never left, occupies her own world, which must be the way Burton likes it. Ideally, for sure, they’d all be doing something more substantial, but at least the movie gives them something to act, which is more than you can say for a lot of films now.
So on the whole, taking my parents to Dark Shadows worked out pretty well (they liked it – remarkably, they’d never seen a Johnny Depp movie before, as far as they could recall – although they thought the ending might have amounted to more). But despite its various pleasures, it only changed things so much for me, Burton-wise. Before the movie, they showed the trailer for his next film, Frankenweenie, an animated fable of a boy who reanimates his pet dog. It’s an expanded version of a short film Burton made right at the start of his career, in 1984. What was I saying about seeming desperate for outlandish subjects? I’m not sure who would have to visit town to get us into that one.