Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote in his now infamous essay “In Defence Of Spoilers” that to judge a film primarily by its narrative is to ignore the importance of style and tone to the cinema. It’s interesting to note just how many of the critical reviews of Dark Shadows to date have been concerned with the (or rather with the lack of a) plot of the film. But why does that actually surprise anyone? Director Tim Burton has never been one for plot, with his ubiquitous style his clear calling card. It’s arguable that he’s one of the few Hollywood filmmakers that are wholly stylistically driven, with even the works that deviate from the typical Burtonian style remaining visually familiar an in-keeping with his house style, the hyper-real and fantastical infiltrating even the most theoretically traditional of scenarios. Of course, that isn’t to say that the narrative isn’t problematic with Dark Shadows: it is, but the plot is but a small aspect of the work, and hardly the focus of the piece.
Dark Shadows tells the tale of the Collins family of Collinsport, and their aged patriarch, the 250 -year old vampire Barnabus Collins. Recently unearthed from a two-century long imprisonment at the behest of a spurned lover (who also happens to be a witch), Barnabas vows to bring his once formidable family back to glory, and in the face of an all-new world to the 18th-century undead nobleman, adding a fish out of water spin to proceedings. Dark Shadows is based upon a 1960’s soap opera, the influence of which has been nary in its explicitness for much of the past two decades (we’d never heard of it).
So, while the plotting of Dark Shadows leaves little to admire, the film does succeed in other areas. From a visual perspective the film is a joy, with cinematography courtesy of Jean-Pierre Jeunet lensman Bruno Delbonnel giving Burton’s well worn signature style a renewed sense of vigour. Thankfully the film is well removed from the overtly digitised landscapes of Burton’s most recent work Alice In Wonderland, and recalls the skewed Americana of Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice and Mars Attacks! eerily well.
Dark Shadows features the familiar Burton repertoire of actors alongside a couple of new performers. Returning alumnus include Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Michelle Pfeiffer, while Eva Green, Chloe Moretz and Bella Heathcote represent the fresh blood. All are fine, if nothing spectacular. In fact “nothing spectacular” would probably be the ideal one statement summation of Dark Shadows: the plotting issues aren’t terminal in terms of the success of the piece, but nor are the visuals exciting enough to counter the drop. It’s simply alright, which is a bit of a shame coming from the director of Big Fish, Ed Wood and Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.