It’s really my fault that my mother wanted to see Dark Shadows for Mothers’ Day. Back in Junior High, we had this family tradition of setting the card table up in front of the TV and all watching a show with dinner on Sunday nights. Somehow I convinced my parents to choose 21 Jump Street over 60 Minutes. I much preferred Douglas Penhall to Tom Hanson at first, and thought Dennis Booker a great improvement — mostly over jealousy that, despite being moody and cranky, I couldn’t pull off the brooding bad boy — but clearly the rest of America disagreed. I’m not sure if it was then that my mother decided she liked Johnny Depp, but it was certainly no later than Edward Scissorhands.
Which is why we watched Dark Shadows today. Now, Dark Shadows has received some tough reviews. “Lack of concern for story and drama”; “the movie means to have isn’t all that funny”; “the plot hits a series of dead ends.”; “the truth is that it doesn’t really go anywhere at all”. But all of this misses the point, I think: Tim Burton has never really made movies, he’s made pictures that happen to be shown serially. These pictures include emotion, pathos, beauty, and real characters; but they’re linked more by the fact that they’re shown adjacent to each other than by any “plot.” It’s like a Bosch tryptich, but a millionstych.
Dark Shadows is an excellent Bosch tryptich. There’s enough plot that you never wonder what’s happening or why, so let’s not get worked up over that. The scenes are beautiful, like you’d expect, but interestingly enough not in the standard overblown Tim Burton style; he’s moved beyond the big color blocks and on to texture. Like a proper Tim Burton movie, the thing has few enough sets, it could be a play.
And the acting’s quite good. Johnny Depp is, of course, outstanding playing a parody of a period character. Unfortunately — and surprisingly, given the team — Helena Bonham Carter kind of disappears; maybe making her up as a redhead took away her mojo. Michelle Pfeiffer reminds us all why she used to be the biggest thing out there, as she dominates the screen at every turn. Everybody’s talking about Eva Green, but for my money the big surprise is Chloe Grace Moretz, who nails the disaffected teenager with a secret thing perfectly and turns a small character into someone worth watching. Everybody’s also calling out how Gulliver McGrath (great name, by the way!) plays David Collins just like Damien from The Omen, but I was more struck by how he learned to move just like Danny Lloyd from The Shining, which frankly makes more sense given the character.
Okay, but is it good? Well, by now you should know what kind of movie Tim Burton makes, and you should know what kind of movie Johnny Depp makes, and you might even know what kind of movie Helena Bonham Carter makes. So let’s not get into some metaphysical discussion of “quality” here — this is a cinematic product aimed at a certain slice of the market and made by people who are proud to make that kind of product. If you’re in that slice of the market, then you’ll love it. If not, you’ll feel about it the way that a driver with a flat tire feels about a Kit Kat: it’s a lovely candy, but who cares, where’s the spare?
I guess I’m in that market. And, happily on Mothers’ Day, so is my Mom. Happy Mothers’ Day, Mom, hope you enjoyed Dark Shadows like I did!