There is a line spoken early on in Dark Shadows by the youngest character that implies a fifteen year old girl masturbates. It’s an odd, callous moment, and such ‘humour’ is symptomatic of the film as a whole: it’s not especially funny; it doesn’t fit in with anything that has come before or after; it’s disconcertingly crude; it’s the start of largely terrible treatment towards women in the film that continues throughout; and it’s a moment that makes you wonder what the hell Tim Burton was thinking.
Dark Shadows‘ biggest issue is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be. The intro shows Sleepy Hollow era Burton trying desperately to break out, but this soon gives way to a fish out of water comedy as the 18th century vampire tries to grasp the strange world of 1970s America. Gothic horror and comedy can work well together, but instead of treading the line with finesse Burton flops wetly between the two, creating an awkward melange of high camp, low comedy and middling family saga and failing to be effective in any of these areas. One or two laughs are not enough to forgive a glut of dead weight jokes and non-entities of scenes that come from nowhere and go nowhere. The result is that the whole film is dull and plodding.
But, I hear you all cry, Tim Burton’s films are not about the plot, they are all about style! Such arguments do apply to the director’s finest work – Big Fish is a whimsical and light story that is brought to life by the sunny, fantastical way it is shot. Here, however, the style is as vague and undefined as the plot, the majority of scenes bathed in a grey murk, with occasional brightness from primary colours breaking in. There is no inventiveness here, nothing definitive or especially engaging about the aesthetic of the film. Whilst it is a refreshing break from the horrendous CGI gunk that was Alice in Wonderland, one longs for the offbeat beauty of Edward Scissorhands, or something a little more refined like Ed Wood. It’s not even ugly, it’s just totally forgettable.
The film as a whole would also be merely forgettable were it not for a hateful streak of misogyny that sticks uncomfortably in the mind after the credits have rolled. The aforementioned joke shows a worryingly mean streak towards Chloe Moretz’s Carolyn in particular (a character who is served especially poorly by the script), but it seems that every woman in the film is some kind of liar, witch or somehow deserving of death (that is, unless they are there for something sexual). This is possibly the work of writer Seth Grahame Smith, adding a vile aftertaste to an otherwise merely boring film. Either way, it is totally unwanted and unnecessary, particularly in something aimed at younger audiences.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when Tim Burton became so rubbish – he’s not actually made many truly bad films, but you can see his decline into self parody round about the enjoyable Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Up until Alice in Wonderland, however, he was still churning out decent films that had stories and heart and were visually interesting. It perhaps pre-emptive to say that Burton has now hit rock bottom, but it is difficult to see how he could get any worse than this.