Dark Shadows | On Demand
Tim Burton and Johnny Depp should call it quits.
In Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, Johnny Depp plays an aristocratic vampire who awakens, after an eternity of subterranean slumber, to discover the reincarnation of his one true love is living among his descendants at the old family manor. It’s the stuff macabre fairy tales are made of, but the real undying romance driving this lavish fish-out-of-water comedy is the one between its director and star. Twenty-two years after Edward Scissorhands, another tale of an unfashionable outsider thrust into a brave new world, Burton and Depp are still throwing outlandish Halloween parties together. Dark Shadows, their eighth collaboration, continues a tradition that has yielded Oscar nominations and box-office behemoths (including Alice in Wonderland, Burton’s biggest hit).
What it hasn’t yielded, at least since the mid-’90s, is a truly exceptional film. I was kinder than most to Dark Shadows, which possesses an unhinged, black-comic spirit missing from much of the recent Burton-Depp canon. That said, it would be hard to claim the movie reverses the trend of diminishing returns that’s come to define their partnership. Whether leaping down rabbit holes, touring chocolate factories or dancing with the dead, the two scarcely stray from their symbiotic shtick: a CGI-enhanced vaudeville routine in which Depp, slathered in makeup and dressed to the nines, holds court over a carnival of colorful misfits.
There was a time when the pairing of this studio fabulist with his elfishly handsome muse was worth getting excited about. This was in the early ’90s, when Depp’s dashing eccentricity—as well as his almost perverse willingness to obscure his boyish good looks—made him an ideal match for Burton’s odes to the outcast, Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. (The latter, a love letter to the “worst director of all time,” remains a high-water mark for both artists.) But whereas these early triumphs were fundamentally personal in nature, the last decade or so has seen the actor-director team devote itself to increasingly soulless entertainments. They’re bad-art enablers, reinforcing each other’s worst habits and instincts.
For Depp, the Burton-verse has become a vast costume chest—a regular opportunity to play dress-up. Weirdos have long been the actor’s stock in trade, but only when working with his favorite auteur does he get to entrust all character-shaping responsibilities to the wardrobe department. Since 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, Depp has offered nothing but one-note, garb-deep caricatures for Burton—perpetually scowling beneath white face powder in Sweeney Todd, or doing a thinly veiled, epically annoying Michael Jackson impersonation in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He scores some laughs in Dark Shadows as befuddled bloodsucker Barnabas, but the character is nothing more than a culture-clash punch line.
If Depp has let his garish duds do the acting for him, Burton has largely delegated his duties to the art directors. His films have become noisy amusement-park rides, racing constantly from one cartoon-Gothic backdrop to the next, bombarding us with sanitized, Hot Topic “weirdness.”
One wonders if Burton’s blockbusters would improve without a black hole at their centers. Could working with a new leading man spark an artistic reinvention for the filmmaker? Conversely, could Depp reconnect to reality—to the challenges and joys of playing actual human beings—by saying no to the next iconic-oddball part that Burton slides his way? We may never find out; at this point, it would probably take a hex to tear these kindred spirits apart.
Dark Shadows is available on VOD, DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday 2.