After 2010's CG blowout Alice in Wonderland long-time collaborators Johnny Depp and Tim Burton return to a more realistic realm with their update of the '60s gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. It just so happens that realism in the case of Depp and Burton also involves vampires.
We first meet Barnabas Collins (Depp) in 1752 enjoying the aristocratic lifestyle of his successful father and wooing the female staff employed in the Collins' mansion. The romantic lifestyle is without consequence until Barnabas picks up and drops the wrong servant: Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) a witch with a nasty case of jealousy. When Barnabas finally discovers true love Bouchard casts a spell on his favored female causing her to jump off a cliff. In the wake of the incident and with nothing left to live for Barnabas hurls himself off the edge — but Bouchard curses him before he hits the ground. He's become a vampire an immortal and Bouchard has just the everlasting punishment in mind. She buries Barnabas in a coffin never to be seen again.
Jump ahead to 1972 where a construction crew in Collinsport resurface the confined bloodsucker. After a quick bite Barnabas heads home to his manor to discover he's a true bat out of water. His family is gone replaced by a new generation of Collinses: Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) the family matriarch; Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz) her angsty niece; David (Gulliver McGrath) highly disturbed by memories of his dead mother; Roger (Johnny Lee Miller) the scheming deadbeat dad; and Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) David's constantly intoxicated psychologist; and Victoria (Bella Heathcote) the new recruit hired to school David in his fragile state. Barnabas' learning curve adjusting to his new surroundings is the crux of Dark Shadows' purposefully meandering plot which strikes a few brilliant bits of comedy in between long stretches of lifeless melodrama. Turns out a soap opera adaptation ends up being pretty darn soap opera-y.
Unlike most summer blockbusters Dark Shadows sparingly uses action and large-scale set pieces to tell its story. Burton chooses a lower-key approach in the vein of his earlier films like Beetlejuice or Edward Scissorhands. But the movie differs in its lack of emotional throughline — all the colorful misadventures would be a lot more effective if there was something to care about. Barnabas strikes up a romance with Victoria but it's hamfisted. He becomes a fatherly figure to David but only late in the film. By the third montage set to a classic rock tune it's clear Burton and Depp seem far more interested in the bizarre collision of vampire tropes and '70s decor. A scene in which Barnabas converses with a group of pot-smoking hippies on the ins and outs of youth culture works as a sketch comedy vignette but in the grand scheme of the story is fluffy funny and pointless.
Depp's dedication to keeping things weird helps Dark Shadows stay alive. He loves the theatrics biting into every moment with epic speak lifted from the British thee-aaaay-ter. Green joins in on the fun full force her wicked seductress both playful and unabashedly evil. The rest of the cast makes little splash Pfeiffer playing the straight woman while the rest of the ensemble go toe to toe with the larger than life Depp. They don't seem in on the same joke as Depp and the many dialogue scenes just. Come. Off. As. Slooooow. And. Painful. Deliberate soap opera acting is a tightrope walk — only Depp and Green really make it across without faltering.
Dark Shadows is a mixed bag that feels indebted to a source material. Whether you're familiar with the style or not may will be a deciding factor. Burton's washy aesthetics and plodding pacing don't do the material any favors with Danny Elfman's standard issued score failing to elevate the atmosphere. Kitsch and horrors abound but the witch's brew of elements won't be everyone's cup of tea. Er cup of blood?
Novelist Richard Yates tried for years to bring his 1961 story of marital trouble in ‘50s suburbia to the screen but died before seeing it finally come to fruition in the form of this scorching adaptation by writer Justin Haythe. April (Kate Winslet) and Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) are young marrieds living what appears to be the ideal life in the Connecticut of the 1950s. He has a nice job she is a mother of two with dreams of an acting career. But beneath the surface is a lingering dissatisfaction with their lives; Frank is having an affair with an office worker (Zoe Kazan) and April is terribly unhappy with the way her life is turning out. They engage in ferocious arguments constantly disproving the idea they are the perfect couple. One day April decides the answer to all their problems is to move to Paris and start over. Frank initially agrees but the relationship goes downhill even further from there and things spiral out of control. Revolutionary Road’s brilliant ensemble ignites and delivers on just about every level imaginable. Kate Winslet who seemingly can do no wrong these days is heartbreakingly good as a housewife who foreshadows the feminist movement. Her April is an ambitious confused woman tragically living a couple of beats ahead of her time. Leonardo DiCaprio gives his finest film performance as a man who knows he is not living up to his potential but seems to be in a state of denial trying almost pathetically to keep what’s left of his marriage and family together. It’s the subtext and unspoken words between them that really give power to these tremendously effective performances. After the first 10 minutes you will be so mesmerized by their raw naked acting you will forget you are watching the two young stars who first appeared together in Titanic a decade earlier. Kathy Bates as a cheerful real estate agent with her own family problems is also quite good as is Michael Shannon as her disturbed grown son who seems to know more about the sad state of the Wheelers home life than anyone realizes. He should be a frontrunner for the supporting actor Oscar if there is any justice. Also blending in nicely are Kathryn Hahn and David Harbour as neighbors who are the polar opposite of Frank and April. Sam Mendes who won an Oscar for directing yet another stinging view of suburbia with his Oscar-winning American Beauty does another great job of bringing out the essence of what Yates says about a generation hiding behind a façade of happiness but living on the cusp of great profound social change. Mendes lets long dialogue scenes play out packing them with riveting moments. His filmmaking style should be savored for the insights it provides and the emotional challenges it presents. Mendes also manages to get an extraordinary portrayal of suburban angst from his real-life wife Winslet. Not since Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton battled so brazenly in 1966’s Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf has there been a wounded couple’s marriage so deeply and poignantly exposed on screen.