By Warren Day
Nobody plays an oddball character as convincingly as Johnny Depp, and it’s a good thing, too, since oddballs comprise most of his roles. Throughout his film career—from such characters as the extremity-challenged Edward Scissorhands, to the worst-movie-director-of-all-time, Ed Wood, as well as a mental hospital patient who thinks he’s Don Juan, the demon barber Sweeny Todd, the ever-so Mad Hatter, and the swishy Capt. Jack Sparrow—Depp has done what many stars only dream of doing – maintaining his status as a leading man while playing the quirky roles normally relegated to character actors.
In his latest walk on the “Wilde” side, “Dark Shadows,” Depp portrays a character as adept at chewing upon necks as he is chewing the scenery, a love-sick, blood-sucking vampire named Barnabas Collins. Once again, this ain’t the boy next door. “Dark Shadows” is Depp’s eighth outing with director Tim Burton. Among their collaborations, this movie feels more like “Sleepy Hollow” than “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” meaning it falls noticeably short of their best work together. As is true with all Tim Burton films, the look of “Dark Shadows” is never less than stunning.
No one uses CGI (computer generated images) better to set a mood, particularly in a gothic tale like this. In every detail, the film is a feast for your eyes. Unfortunately, as the old saying goes, “There’s a lot of sizzle, but where’s the steak?” In the end, “Dark Shadows” takes you in all directions without really going anywhere. Burton can sometimes pull off making style look like substance, but not in this case. Here is a P.T. Barnum-inspired, three-ring circus of a vampire story, about as subtle as a World Wresting Entertainment championship bout.
It’s as if Burton was a celebrity chef who went into the kitchen without any clear idea of what he’s cooking, and just starting throwing in every ingredient at hand, so that instead of his usual distinctive style, you end up with mush. With “Dark Shadows,” more money has been thrown into this concoction than originality. As always, Johnny Depp is good, although here he aims for the jocular more than for the jugular. It’s also refreshing to see Michelle Pfeiffer back on the silver screen, even portraying the matriarch of this Addams Family clone.
Unfortunately, Eva Green (“Casino Royale”) seems to have been told by Burton to play Depp’s nemesis like an imitation of Lisa Marie (the director’s former girlfriend) impersonating Vampira. It is a caricature too far. When “Dark Shadows” first appeared as a “daytime drama” on ABC-TV in 1966, it was something of an original, the first gothic-inspired, supernatural soap opera. Since then, vampire stories have become a vein—pun intended—that’s been mined to death.
In films, we currently have the “Twilight Saga” and the “Underworld” series, television viewers can get their blood-drinker fix with “True Blood” and “The Vampire Dairies,” and this summer, a popular novel-turned-blockbuster-movie depicts honest Abe Lincoln as a vampire hunter. Enough already! It’s time for the living dead to become the dead dead—at least for a merciful while. Let them all Rest in Peace.