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?
Loaded with contradictions Porter (Kevin Kline) is a small-town Midwesterner who becomes a Parisian bon vivant an openly gay man who maintains a relatively happy marriage to his wife Linda Thomas (Ashley Judd) and a gifted tunesmith who actually enjoys slumming in Hollywood. But when a riding accident leaves him crippled he becomes increasingly bitter and lonely right up until his death in 1964. The movie opens with a ridiculous framing device after Porter's death. He is greeted by the angel Gabriel (Jonathan Pryce) who begins a staged re-creation of his life featuring his various friends and foes while Porter rails at their deaf images incessantly like Ebeneezer Scrooge confronting his past. To make matters worse Kline's old man makeup is so creepily extra-terrestrial it makes him look like Mandy Patinkin in Alien Nation. It is with great relief that we then cut to glorious 1930s Paris as Kline meets Judd's lovely ex-pat divorcee and they embark on their very odd alliance. At first she condones his affairs even arranges them but soon his indiscretion and rampant promiscuity threaten to destroy their marriage.
Kline plays Porter as an unabashed sexual predator for the first hour of the movie seemingly unaffected by the hurt he causes his wife. And in the final act predictably Kline strains for pathos as Porter becomes old and bitter. Kline's acting baggage catches up with him
here to ill effect. He's been arching his eyebrows and delivering preposterous dialogue in witty deadpan style so well for so many years that when he consults a doctor on a leg operation one half expects his character to request a brain transplant a la Dr. Rod Randall in Soapdish. He's already got the gold man that Jim Carrey covets (for A Fish Called Wanda). But his "serious" turns (this My Life as a House The Emperor's Club) are just painful. Judd fares slightly better as his muse confidante groupie and pimp. Unlike so many actresses she isn't overbearingly modern. And even her affectations like inserting an accented French word into each line fit the character. This could have been the role that returned Judd to the earlier promise of her work in Ruby in Paradise and/or Heat--if it wasn't constantly interrupted by the framing device and the music.
Speaking of which rather than allowing the power of the music itself to illustrate Porter's wondrous gifts the director (and maybe some MGM marketing suits) decided to use modern pop singers to sing the songs in elaborate musical numbers. It's like watching a Mad TV parody of American Dreams. Alanis Morissette dressed as a flapper warbles
"Let's Do It" as if it's "You Oughta Know." Sheryl Crow shrieks "Begin the Beguine" as if her leg is caught in a bear trap. And in a movie that tries so hard to convince us of the gay lyrical subtext (OK we get it) what else are we to make of the musical finale "Blow Gabriel Blow"? Irwin Winkler should just stop trying to direct. He is one of the most acclaimed producers in Hollywood (Rocky Raging Bull Goodfellas among countless others) yet as a director he has a knack for taking listless subjects (Senate hearings the Internet) and making them even more boring. With De-Lovely he goes from the mundane to the ridiculous. When Porter falls off the horse Winkler cross-cuts to Linda in Paris sniffing the air as if she can somehow sense his danger. What is she his twin as well? The direction is so ham-fisted that when a character coughs you know instantly it is implying a painful rheumatic death to come if in the distant future. Even the death of a small child is milked shamelessly for drama since the script (Jay Cocks) provides none. If there is any reason to watch the movie it's the costumes (Giorgio Armani) and the vivid re-creations of pre-War Paris Venice Broadway and Hollywood. If only we could stay there. Just as we settle comfortably into the period old man Porter returns raging at the darkness his prosthetic skin threatening to melt off and go flying in every direction.