I can happily report, at least, that Johnny Depp is physically aging well. Though he no longer looks like a 20-year-old (he turns 49 next month), his face and neck are thickening in an interesting way, and he looks more dignified, more statesmanlike for it. There are a few scenes in Dark Shadows where the makeup artist has gone a little nuts and painted Depp’s old cheekbones onto his pasty-white face, and it’s super-distracting. Rather than intimating the Depp of old, it looks like he lost a shit-throwing contest with a rhesus monkey.
Depp’s aging face is the most interesting part of Dark Shadows. In fact, it’s one of only two interesting things about Dark Shadows: The other is Depp’s performance as a 200-year-old vampire named Barnabas Collins. As Collins frees himself from the tomb where he’s been trapped for the last two centuries and makes his way back to his ancestral mansion, he bumps against the hippies and swingers of 1972 in amusing ways. Depp is acting like a classic overacting movie vampire, with an ancient vocabulary (“Fear me not, drunkard!”) and a comical sense of self-importance. He’s a crappy photocopy of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula performance in almost every way, and so those few scenes where he feasts on innocent victims—not with a genteel sip at the neck as you expect, but with a screaming, leaping, all-you-can-eat massacre—are wrought with a special kind of comedic terror.
But the rest of Dark Shadows is shit, and it’s all Tim Burton’s fault. Because the movie is based on a campy gothic horror soap opera with more than 1,200 episodes of material, the script is all over the map. Collins returns to find his name on the wane. His ancestors are losing the family fortune, the fishing industry his father left to him is in danger of going under, and the witch who imprisoned him in the first place is dismantling Collins’s legacy, brick by brick. There’s schlocky comedy, attempts at pathos, and flailings at romance. Family secrets—most of which make no sense—are unveiled in the last 30 minutes of the film in a clear attempt to seed sequels and build a franchise.
Depp’s soap-operatic impulse is a good one, considering the cheesiness of the source material, but the problem is that Burton’s directing is so feather-light that you can’t tell if scenes are intentionally poorly lit and hammily acted because it’s all from a soap opera, or if it’s just because Burton isn’t paying attention. Sometimes, you get telenovela-style dreck, and other times, you get expensive-looking digital effects and lavish scenery detailing, and there doesn’t seem to be any reasoning behind those choices.
A great cast is absolutely wasted: As the family matriarch, Michelle Pfeiffer does nothing in her highest-profile role in years. Jackie Earle Haley plays the idiot sidekick with distressing blandness. Chloë Grace Moretz is totally squandered. Eva Green’s immortal evil witch seems to have sixteen different personalities, and none of them amount to much of anything. And it all builds to a preposterous, throw-everything-against-the-wall climax that fails to make any sense or build to any emotional energy.
This failure has to land squarely in Burton’s lap. A director’s job is to take the disparate forces behind the scenes of a movie and to, well, direct those energies into the avenues in which they will do the most good for the benefit of the project. Dark Shadows is directionless, heartless, and brainless. It’s not as actively bad as, say, Burton’s inane Alice in Wonderland, but it’s a total waste of everyone’s time—the actors, the production crew, the marketers, and worst of all, the audience.