'Dark Shadows' worse than doing the dishes

May 13, 2012 

What if we're all robots involved in a bizarre mass psychology experiment?

I don't ask that question often. Mostly because it is disallowed by my programming. Yet, sometimes I override my shutdown protocols long enough to give it some thought. Because now and then you run into a situation that can only be explained by the involvement of positronic brains. How else to explain the fact I once liked Tim Burton very much, only to awake one day and discover that, as if a switch had been flipped, I think his movies are awful?

-- Local show times, theaters, trailer.

Wait. Maybe it's because his movies are awful. I suppose that's a little simpler than the whole robots thing. Also, here's one more piece of supporting evidence: I saw Burton's newest movie, Dark Shadows, and it was terrible.

Two hundred years ago, fishing magnate Johnny Depp spurned the advances of witch Eva Green. In response, she killed his beloved, cursed his family and turned him into a vampire. Not long after, an angry mob buried him alive.

Released in 1970s Maine, he finds his descendants have fallen on hard times. Depp's able to turn their fortunes around quickly, but soon discovers Green is still in town -- and she's still bent on destroying Depp and his entire family.

Dark Shadows feels like a bad adaptation of a long-lost Charles Dickens novel about vampires and the witches who love/hate them. Wait, scratch that. That sounds great. That sounds like something we should be founding new religions around. Take two: Dark Shadows feels like a bad adaptation of a stupid book written by a stupid person who either needs to go back to book-writing school or go learn to be an EMT or whatever instead.

In short, the movie is way too busy and unfocused. It starts with some five or 10 minutes of voiceover from Depp laying out the lengthy tale of how his father moved the family from Liverpool to America in 1760, whereupon he founded a thriving fish concern before getting smashed to death by a piece of house and oh man this prologue isn't even halfway over yet. The prologue is enough to form the logue of most movies.

Yet, once we're done hearing all about the tragic circumstances of Depp's life and undeath, the movie then leaps to the perspective of Bella Heathcote, a young woman looking to hire on at the house run by Depp's descendant Michelle Pfeiffer. Many slow and tedious minutes later, Dark Shadows abandons Heathcote's epic tale of domestic employment to jump back to Depp, resulting in a sort of slow-motion narrative whiplash where you're left with a sore neck and a pronounced swelling of the apathy gland.

Because it turns out Dark Shadows is adapted from a '60s soap opera. And writer Seth Grahame-Smith seems hellbent on condensing every one of its 1,225 episodes into one 113-minute movie.

Depp has to contend with a strange future, a host of dysfunctional family members and their paranormal problems, the collapse of his family estate and business, a budding interest in Heathcote, and oh yeah, that literal witch who keeps fouling things up.

It's twice as busy as it needs to be, yet it's also paradoxically boring. At one point, there is actually a rousing house-cleaning montage. You know what's more fun than that? Cleaning my own house. And the dirty dishes in my sink have been there for so long they've started to insult me whenever I walk through the kitchen.

With so much going on, none of the characters has time to develop. There's nothing to hang on to besides Burton's usual array of fey, big-eyed people and his moody, gothic sets. The jokes feel half-written, providing setups with no real punchlines. All these characters are eventually given payoffs, but considering how little time we've spent with them, we may as well be reading about how two Lithuanian cattle ranchers have agreed to continue ranching cattle. I'd rather have spent 200 years locked in a coffin.

Grade: D+

* Contact Ed Robertson at edwrobertson@gmail.com. His fiction is available on Kindle, Nook, and through Smashwords.

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