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'Dark Shadows' is short on storytelling, not style, critics say

May 11, 2012 |  3:30 pm


Dark Shadows
"Dark Shadows," Tim Burton's adaptation of the cult 1960s soap opera of the same name, features many of the director's trademarks, including a gothic setting, an offbeat sense of humor and Johnny Depp sinking his teeth into the lead role, this time as the temporally displaced vampire Barnabas Collins. Critics' reviews have been mixed, with an underlying current suggesting that one's appreciation of the film will depend on their taste for Burton's idiosyncrasies.

The Times' Kenneth Turan, who calls Burton's filmmaking style "very much an acquired taste," writes that "Dark Shadows" is "an uncertain combination of elements that unsuccessfully tries to be half-scary, half-funny and all strange." The production design, by Burton collaborator Rick Heinrichs, is "wonderful," and "Depp's performance is so unwavering in its commitment to eccentricity that it is hard not to be fitfully entertained." On the other hand, Turan says, the film is tripped up by Burton's "woeful lack of concern with story and drama."

The New York Times' Manohla Dargis agrees that "traditional storytelling has never been Mr. Burton’s specialty or perhaps interest." But, she adds, "What counts in his work is the telling, not the tale," and in the case of "Dark Shadows," Dargis says the telling is "very enjoyable, visually sumptuous and … surprisingly effervescent." If the film "isn’t among Mr. Burton’s most richly realized works," it is his "most pleasurable film in years."

In the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert says the film "is all dressed up with nowhere to go, an elegant production without a central drive." Depp and Burton are known quantities — "We know we can expect a pitch-perfect performance by Depp, who plays Barnabas with a lasered intensity, and we know Burton's sets and art direction will be spectacular" — but despite their talents and "gripping early scenes," eventually "the energy drains out."

The Boston Globe's Ty Burr asserts that "Tim Burton has got his groove back," both spoofing and honoring the original daytime soap and having plenty of fun doing so. Echoing other critics, Burr agrees that Burton's "knack for visual invention has always been shadowed by hapless storytelling," but in this case "the movie has just enough structure to tide us over" and "it’s the atmosphere and the riffs that matter."

The Washington Post's Ann Hornaday, on the other hand, finds "Dark Shadows" to be "depressing on myriad levels." The film "doesn't know where it wants to dwell: in the eerie, subversive penumbra suggested by its title or in playful, go-for-broke camp," and "there's little by way of a story." Highlights include Burton's deft rendering of Collinwood, the looming manor where most of the action transpires, and Michelle Pfeiffer's "sensational" turn as one of Barnabas' relatives.

Mick LaSalle, of the San Francisco Chronicle, says that Burton and screenwriters Seth Grahame-Smith and John August mostly pull off the balancing act of paying tribute to the original TV series while sending it up. "When you consider all the pitfalls avoided," LaSalle writes, "and all the laughs and pleasures it provides along the way, 'Dark Shadows' is a satisfying and skillful effort." By now it should come as no surprise that LaSalle commends the sets and atmosphere, or that he approves of Depp's meticulous character work, or that he finds the plotting to be somewhat cursory.

That's often the way things go in Burton's world.


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— Oliver Gettell

Photo: Johnny Depp in "Dark Shadows." Credit: Peter Mountain / Warner Bros.