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David Thomson on Films: How Johnny Depp and Tim Burton Became Shadows of Their Former Selves

The only reason to see Dark Shadows is to discover how dire and pointless—how flat-out dreadful—a movie can be even when it has Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Helena Bonham Carter attached to its flimsy pretext. This is one more vampiric concoction, the total budget for which (apparently $105 million) might have sustained 100 worthwhile, independent projects by new directors. Its reason for being is that Burton once made some sprightly, unexpected excursions into the Gothic grotesque, and often he made them with Johnny Depp, who for years now has traded on the legend that he is one of the most charismatic actors we possess. 

Depp will be fifty next year. It is said that he can earn $50 million from a picture nowadays—there is another Pirates of the Caribbean in prospect, if anyone can offer suggestions with a straight face as to what number five might do that hasn’t been done before. In Dark Shadows, Depp is a puppet made of blood, starch, and the actor’s vanity that if he says dull lines with a putative languor it may seem as if Oscar Wilde had written them. His character, Barnabas Collins, requires edge and sardonic intelligence. But anyone hooked on Anna Paquin in True Blood knows that all a vampire needs to do is make us believe in the passion of blood. There are other, larger topics in life, but never mind. Thirst can conquer all and make a helpless idiot out of the drinker.

Collins is an eighteenth-century vampire who has been in a lifelong feud with a witch, Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green—the only person who seems to believe in this project and thus the only person worth looking at). Collins comes back to his family’s hokey World of Interiors mansion. The moment is said to be the 1970s, a claim never made credible in the design, the talk, or the attitudes of the family, but an excuse for the plaster of oldie music slapped onto the trembling edifice whenever it threatens to fall apart.

Tim Burton is in his fifties, and he trudges on, a parody of himself and ever further removed from the quirky visionary who had a lively moment with Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, and Ed Wood. The decline began with Planet of the Apes and it became habit with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd, and Alice in Wonderland. Now, I know that Alice was a great hit, Charlie was said to be cute, and Sweeney Todd was drowning in blood (and inept singing—from both Depp and Bonham Carter). But increasingly these films have been turned over to production design and computer Grimmness at the expense of script. All three adaptations missed or ignored the originality of the works they were bringing to the screen.

Johnny Depp was once upon a time a startling young actor, deeply yet mysteriously attractive. His very delicacy commanded attention in Edward Scissorhands, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Ed Wood, and Donnie Brasco. But as he reached authentic stardom it became clear that he had too little conviction or drive to seek out the daring material that his clout could have generated. He began trading on being Johnny Depp—four Jack Sparrows, the feeble Finding Neverland, the empty Public Enemies, an attachment to Hunter Thompson that prolongs adolescence (and which has never improved on Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), Alice in Wonderland, The Tourist, and a scheme to do a Lone Ranger film that was aborted once it threatened to cost $250 million.

It is years since Depp did anything to justify his power or renew his promise. He has made a lot of money, for himself and the industry, and he seems helplessly trapped in that monotonous dynamic. He is not the only actor to become stranded in that way, but Depp has made gestures towards the legacy of Marlon Brando and a creative courage that he no longer deserves or understands.

If he wants a warning example, he might look at the career of Michelle Pfeiffer, who has a negligible role in Dark Shadows—see the film, try to remember her, and then wonder why she came on board. You can go back and see that Pfeiffer was once much more than a beauty—she was abrasive, close to despair, and hostile to the trick of being charming. Her Elvira in Scarface is a defiant lost soul, even if eventually she exits the story and leaves Al Pacino to labor over mountains of cocaine and ham. She was lovely and touching in The Witches of Eastwick, very funny in Married to the Mob, and one of the best tough broads in American film doing her own burn-the-torch-singing-at-both-ends as Susie Diamond in The Fabulous Baker Boys. There was also Dangerous Liaisons, a pale and enchanting heroine in The Russia House, her tour-de-force Cat Woman in Batman Returns, and Love Field.

That was 20 years ago, and now Pfeiffer is also in her fifties, the relic of a career that has dwindled away. In Dark Shadows, Pfeiffer has nothing to do except wear her makeup and flutter her eyelashes. This maneuver seems to be done by pulleys, and whenever her mortified face is still, it settles into a look of such disappointment you wish she could retire. She continues to make films (though there have been substantial gaps in this century), and sometimes the material is as promising as Colette’s Cheri, directed by Stephen Frears. But nothing has done anything to allay the suspicion that at some time around 2000 Michelle Pfeiffer was body snatched. Someone comes to work under her name, but it is not quite her, just as Barnaby Collins is only a person of stucco and stage blood.

So Dark Shadows is a package for ghosts or pale vestiges of former selves. It is touted in this spring season as a likely hit. I doubt that will come to pass. This is a dispiriting experience, a penitential occupation of our screen for two hours. There will be true movie vampires howling in their graves these nights. If you know a Nosferatu, put out a saucer of warm blood for him. And I suppose Jack Sparrow will be back with his middle-aged cheek, all mascara and mockery.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.