An imaginative auteur of gothic fantasy, his breakout films of the 1980s (“Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” “Beetlejuice”) and early 90s (“Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood”) set into motion a career that seemed destined for something great.
But somewhere around “Mars Attacks” and onwards to his silly remake of “Planet of the Apes,” Burton’s body of work dipped—highlighted briefly by momentary peaks with “Big Fish,” “Corpse Bride,” and “Sweeney Todd” (though equal credit on this last one belongs to Stephen Sondheim).
And then, in 2010, Burton created “Alice in Wonderland,” and it was like a funeral for the fun filmmaker I grew up with. Ugly, uninspired, and torturously tedious, it was Burton’s most triumphant disappointment.
So coming from that film, I may be overpraising “Dark Shadows” by claiming, right off the bat, it is among Burton’s best. After blandness and boredom, something this awesome, funny, and well made seems amplified in all those departments when compared. It’s a rare delight when I go in expecting a cloudy experience, and end up basking in a movie’s surprisingly bright luminance.
And “Dark Shadows,” a title that essentially doubles as a description of Burton’s signature style, is a fiery ball of something special despite its gloomy visual atmosphere (which, for the record, looks spectacular and I anticipate revisiting the gorgeous art direction of this film in IMAX).
This is Burton back to basics, with a newfound pair of balls. He’s crafted something with the inventive zip of “Pee-Wee” and “Beetlejuice,” the grim air of “Sleepy Hollow,” and the emotional grounding of “Edward Scissorhands”—it feels more like a movie Burton would have made in his earlier career over present day. It’s both nostalgic Burton and new Burton, and nearly every minute is just as fun as the previous one.
Johnny Depp, in his eighth collaboration with Burton, stars as Barnibus Collins—an 18th century man cursed by a woman he scorned into living eternity as a broken-hearted vampire buried beneath the earth. When he’s released into the 1970s, it’s a classic fish out of water that Burton adds a much-needed freshness to.
And much of the freshness lies in the movie’s riotous hilarity. It’s a movie where whole lines are regrettably missed because I can’t hear the dialogue over the sounds of my own howling.
From Barnibus’s hysterically funny dialect of centuries ago—he refers to a group of hippies as “nice, unshaven young people”—and his observations of present day, deeming shock-rocker Alice Cooper the “ugliest woman I’ve ever seen,” this is a movie that paces itself well with witty dialogue and clever storytelling devices.
“Dark Shadows” also serves as one of Burton’s most carnal films to date—dripping in sex and adding just the right bite of bloody creature violence. In essence, it’s one giant, soap opera allegory in the dangers of rejecting certain women. If they end up being a witch—as is the case with “Dark Shadows”—you might find yourself in a situation that feels much like being trapped underground in a constricting coffin for 200 years.
Funny, sexy, bloody, and creative, Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows” is a resurrection of the director I once knew. His style and skill have returned and they both feel stronger than ever—making his films of 20 years ago feel like they happened just yesterday, and “Alice in Wonderland” feel like ancient history.
Greg Vellante is a film critic for The Eagle Tribune.