The hardest thing about watching Dark Shadows is the awareness that it now makes two consecutive films gone wrong for Tim Burton. After the masterpiece that was Sweeney Todd, Alice in Wonderland turned out to be more of a Disney film than a Burton one, almost as if Burton was parodying his own world. And now, with Dark Shadows, it appears that Burton is still obsessed with winning the affections of a larger audience and thus perverts his own convictions.
Yet the story seems to have been written for him: a doomed love that leads to a desire for vengeance, the creation of a monster, witches and ghosts, unworthy parents and lonely children. But Burton faces two major difficulties. First of all, a badly written script that cumulates side stories and explanatory lines. Then, Burton’s never-ending need to be loved by the audience, to become once again a box-office pleaser. That desire had seemed to vanish after Batman Returns and came back later, after the commercial failure of Planet of the Apes. Burton had then directed Big Fish, a film in which he desperately tried to explain why his imaginative land was far better than the real world. It takes only one scene unfolding in a “normal” setting to see that Burton feels uncomfortable. The entire Albert Finney-Jessica Lange felt weird as if Burton had suddenly lost his powers and didn’t know exactly how to film these all-too normal people. The other problem in Big Fish was the fact that its hero, Edward, was not a “freak”. Liked by all, handsome, peppy, he possessed nothing of the qualities Burton is usually interested in a character. Just take a look at Batman Returnsin which the Bat man himself is almost too normal, so much that the entire picture revolved around the disorders of Catwoman and the Penguin.
Then came great films such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Corpse Bride. And the greatest of them all, the dark and operatic Sweeney Todd. Sweeney Todd was again a commercial failure, but unlike Planet of the Apes, it was a very personal film for Burton. Perhaps that is why the trauma is harder to overcome today. Alice won the crowds with its special effects, brought a lot of money to Disney, and, I thought, had restored Burton’s confidence. The film was a creative failure but I was ready to let it go as long as Burton planned to come back to a more personal approach to film. And I truly believed that he had when I read the storyline of Dark Shadows.
When I saw the film yesterday, I was greatly disappointed. Burton is in-between genres, constantly hesitating between making a comedy or a drama out of his picture. The cohabitation doesn’t work one bit. First, because the jokes aren’t funny: the character coming from another era discovering an entirely new world has been done too often. The jokes are heavy and far from the subtlety one could find in Edward Scissorhands. He too was a man discovering a new world and unaccustomed to its rules. But Barnabas Collins doesn’t possess the poetic strangeness of Edward, the never-ending thirst for blood of Benjamin Barker, or the self-loathing of the Penguin. Barnabas is satisfied with his status of a gentleman, a bit weird certainly, but not strange at all. Where has Burton’s gift for the uncanny gone? The script heavily reminds you that he is supposed to be “a monster” because he is a vampire. But you never see Barnabas’ dark side, not truly. He kills a few men, but the violence of murder is absent. The animal in him is never exposed whereas a vampire should constantly be possessed by his need for blood. Barnabas only exits through his discrepancy with his time: he doesn’t understand the concept of TV, still treats women as one did a century before, and he believes McDonalds to be Mephistopheles…
As he does from time to time, Burton made two major casting errors: Chloe Grace Moretz is irritating as the rebel teenager, who has nothing of the awkward grace or strangeness of Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice. I will not even comment on the ridiculous discovery that her character is in fact a werewolf. The other is Bella Heathcote who plays Josette/Victoria, the one true love of Johnny Depp’s Barnabas. But again nothing fascinating about that character, except perhaps for a few flashbacks in an asylum, but even those have now become too systematic in Burton’s work. All in all the performances are empty. Depp seems to have acquired a sort of routine: he hides behind his makeup and seems to have decided that it’s all he needs to do. When I think about the performance he gave in Sweeney Todd, it breaks my heart.
Speaking of broken hearts, Angélique is the only one to be saved from the wreckage. Eva Green is the only one who seems to be invested in the story. She offers a truly good performance as the witch desperately in love with Barnabas. Her character at least, has some depth. She embodies all that Burton loves: the unloved one who becomes a monster out of necessity and circumstance. The cursed one, the torn one. “Split at the center” as Bruce Wayne told Selina Kyle. This is why Burton’s greatest esthetic idea in the entire picture relies on her: during the great finale (quite beautiful to watch, when the paintings start to bleed), Angélique becomes a broken doll. Her face cracks, and in one beautiful last gesture (that could have been grand if the special effects weren’t so ugly), she reaches inside her chest and offers her heart to Barnabas.
Had Burton made a choice, he could have made a great tragic story like Sweeney Todd, or Edward Scissorhands. Burton has a vision of love that is tragic and lyrical when he pictures it well. The love he is used to showing is a form
of courtly love: all is delicacy and tenderness. Remember Ichabod and Katrina’s first kiss, or the heartbreaking embrace of Edward and Kim. Even the steamy encounter between Catwoman and Batman on the roof had real class. Here, we only have the vulgarity of the sexual scene between Angélique and Barnabas. A scene that Burton clearly doesn’t know how to film. It’s not his style, it’s not where his heart leans to. It is however what the public seems to demand.
Tim Burton has no place in the common world. He has no care for it. And why should he? The world he created for us over the past two decades has been a world filled with wonders. He has given us the most beautiful, poetic and strangest characters. His heroes are the outcast, the lonely, the misunderstood, the ones who are called “monsters” by a perverted society when they are the innocent and pure ones. Or they are indeed monsters, but ones that were created by the Doctor Frankensteins and Mr. Hydes of this world. Whether they be Sweeneys or Edwards, Ichabods, or Oswald Cobblepots, Burton’s heroes were always the unloved ones.
In Vincent, the little boy wondered, like the poet in Poe’s The Raven: “and my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor shall be lifted?” The dark shadows have now briefly disappeared. And to take up the Raven’s words, I plead: “Nevermore.”