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?
Playing second fiddle to a more famous sibling can be rough. Just ask Fred Claus (Vaughn) a regular guy who has had to grow up under the shadow of his little brother Nicholas Claus (Paul Giamatti) aka Santa. That’s a big shadow to say the least both figuratively and literally. As an adult Fred has pretty much steered clear of his family but when he finds himself in dire need of some fast cash he calls his brother. Pleased as punch to hear from him Nicholas nonetheless makes him a deal: If he comes up to the North Pole for a visit and to help out the few days before Christmas then Fred can have the money. Fred reluctantly agrees and soon he’s being whisked off in Santa’s sleigh by head elf Willie (John Michael Higgins). But once Fred gets to the North Pole nothing seems to go right and soon he is the cause of much chaos--which unbeknownst to Fred causes Nicholas even more stress since his North Pole operation is one step away from being shut down by a cold-hearted efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey). Can Fred quit being bitter in time to save his brother’s livelihood? Of course he can. Hmmm Vince Vaughn minus the R-rated Wedding Crashers/Old School irreverence? It’s a stretch. Seeing the comic actor playing it PG is a little weird but you might enjoy how Vaughn infuses his unique energy into Fred Claus. From getting all the elves to boogie down in Santa’s workshop to going on one rant after another (on his brother: “He’s a clown a megalomaniac a fame junkie!”) to pilfering money on the street and then being chased by Salvation Army Santas it’s all good. Giamatti too seems a little out of his comfort zone as the saintly St. Nick. The actor who usually plays such endearing sad sacks has already played against type to great effect this year as the maniacal bad guy in Shoot ‘Em Up but he isn't nearly as successful in doing the flipside of that in Fred Claus. And what the hell is Kevin Spacey doing in this? As the villain of the film he fills the shoes nicely but he is almost too good at it (natch) for such a feel-good family film. Even Higgins--a character actor who is usually so hilarious in films such as The Break Up and all of Christopher Guest’s movies—has to shed the cheekiness and sugar himself up for Fred Claus. There’s also Rachel Weisz as Fred’s beleaguered girlfriend (you heard right) and Kathy Bates as the Claus boys’ mother who always sees Fred as inferior to her other son to fill out a cast of big names doing family fare. Director David Dobkin is a Vince Vaughn favorite having directed him in Wedding Crashers and Clay Pigeons but like his muse Dobkin seems a little out of place guiding this material. Granted Dobkin creates a pretty magical North Pole complete with an entire city of little dwellings a Frosty Tavern and a huge domed Santa’s Workshop. The montage of Fred delivering presents on Christmas Eve—falling down chimneys stuffing cookies in his face zooming around in the sleigh—is also well done. But overall Fred Claus is a Vaughn vehicle—even as sugary sweet and family-friendly as it is--and all Dobkin really does is turn the camera on and let the man do his stuff. Dan Fogelman's script is also so very bland full of any number of holes and only picks up once Vaughn starts to improvise. Bottom line: If you’re looking to take the kids to a sweet Christmas movie and are a Vince Vaughn fan then Fred Claus is for you.