There are SPOILERS in this review.
Dark Shadows is really a sad reminder of the kind of filmmaker Tim Burton has become. It’s void of emotion, logic, and humor, like most of his films from the last 10 years. I will say from the beginning that I’m not the worlds biggest Tim Burton fan, but I far from hate his work. I grew up like many loving his films from the eighties to the early nineties which is where i feel he shined the most. But as I got older (and from talking with some of my most respected mentors) I discovered that most of Tim Burton’s films are fundamentally flawed, and in many cases for the same reason.
The big problem is that in ninety percent of Burton’s films, his characters don’t change. The don’t grow or develop from the adventures they encounter. Not all of them are this way (Beetlejuice and Ed Wood are probably his best films storywise). But case in point, there’s films like Edward Scissorhands. The experience of the film is absolutely wonderful, and it’s just a beautifully made film. But when you step back and look at the film as a whole, you’ll see this: Edward leaves his home and has an adventure in civilization. And then he goes home. That’s it. He doesn’t change or grow from his experience with ordinary people. He just goes back to his house to continue living the lonely existence he started out with. The same thing happens in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Again I do think it’s terrifically well made film. But after Jack has his adventure, he goes back to being the pumpkin king…which is the one thing he was trying to escape from in the first place. He had a calling, and he wanted to do something more with his life. Yet that calling was never fulfilled. He just goes back to doing what he always did and his world never changes. It’s like a housewife who wants to be more than what she is, only to wind up back in the kitchen again and be put in her place. It’s kind of sad really, as if the outside world became too much for them as opposed to being able to adapt.
It’s as if Burton has some refusal for his characters to grow up. The worlds he creates are marvelous indeed and capture our imagination. But the journey is ultimately is a misleading one, and that’s what frustrates me most about his work. It’s come to the point (Alice and Wonderland for example) where his characters make up stuff that they learned, when really they just went through one weird experience after another that never shows any real trace that they grew as a person and learned something from it. And now with Dark Shadows, Burton has literally become a shell of his former self, relying on his style and aesthetics to carry his films as opposed to story. There is no emotional weight to anything in this film, no character we fully understand, and there are things that just plain don’t make any sense.
I think the primary issue is that this film doesn’t really know what it is. There’s elements of black comedy in it, but because the film never lets us invest anything into these characters, most of the comedy falls flat. There’s one scene in the film that perfectly sums up its identity crisis. There’s a scene where Barnabas (Johnny Depp), in search of the meaning of love in the 20th century, sits around and talks to a group of hippies. When the conversation is done, Barnabas declares that he will have to kill all of them, and then it cuts to a wide shot of the forest with the campfire light and screams from the Hippies. How exactly was this scene supposed to play out? Was it supposed to be funny he killed them? Horrific? Shocking? For the majority of the film, I had no idea how I was supposed to feel about what was going on. We never have ample time to discover who these characters really are. By the time the climax rolls around, it just dives into total weirdness without any build up to what we’re seeing. Major revelations are made in the climax about characters with absolutely no prior information leading up to it. The young boy who can see ghosts is only hinted at in the beginning, and then totally forgotten about till the very end of the film. The revelations instead take the form of deus ex machina.
That’s one of the major problems. Characters are opened up for development, and then completely forgotten about for most of the movie. With the love story between Barbabas and Victoria, the story goes for long stretches where Victoria is completely forgotten about until she happens to pop in at some crucial moment. And the ending between them is a joke. Barnabas bites her, and turns her into a vampire so they can both live a life of immortality. Except, none of the other people Barnabas bit turned into vampires, it only happened when it suited the story.
Most of these side stories that happen are not only under developed, they never seem to tie into the main narrative of the story (if there even is one). Scenes in the story just seem to happen arbitrarily without any meaning. And as a result, the film fails to generate any sort of reaction to what’s happening. It’s just weird Tim Burton stuff for the sake of it, and it’s as if we’re just expected to go along with it. Even though I’m not that enamored with where the stories of Burton’s earlier works ended up, the journey at least was still enjoyable, and we cared about what happened to his characters.
This film, like Burton himself, has become lost. And it’s sad to say, but as another reviewer put it, I think the Tim Burton we used to know is gone and is not coming back. He’s become too reliant on his style of filmmaking over story as a way to bring his audiences in. He will still have his fans I suppose, but it’s become too hard to support a guy who has nothing left to say.