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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Monday, July 28, 2014

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Johnny Depp stars in Tim Burton's "Dark Shadows," in theaters now.
Johnny Depp stars in Tim Burton's "Dark Shadows," in theaters now.

"Dark Shadows" a vampire tale sucked dry of life

After "Beetlejuice" and "Edward Scissorhands," Hollywood seemed to have found a fascinating visual mind in Tim Burton. His style, a mix of classic B-movie horror tropes and German expressionism's exaggerated shadows, spirals and shapes, was unlike anything mainstream audiences had seen.

Cut to 20 years later, and Burton's signature style is more sigh-inducing than surprising. Besides 2003's "Big Fish," he seems unable to do anything without Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, a pound of white cover-up and a spindly dark forest. As expected, all of these attributes make appearances in his latest, "Dark Shadows," but what isn't expected is how little there is to enjoy in Burton's latest.

The movie, an adaptation of the gothic '60s soap opera of the same name, follows Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), the son of a wealthy 18th century family who gets on the bad side of a fiendish witch (Eva Green). After he refuses her romantic advances, she forces Barnabas' true love off a cliff, turns our hero into today's hottest trend, a vampire, and buries him in a coffin. 200 years later, Barnabas wakes up with a family business to reclaim, a witch to vanquish and hippies to slaughter.

"Dark Shadows" certainly had the potential to be a campy fun time, especially with such a deep cast including Michelle Pfeiffer, Jackie Earle Haley and "Kick-Ass"'s Chloe Grace Moretz. Just like our hero, though, that potential is thrown in a box and buried under piles of ploddingly paced scenes that are almost as deadly as a vampire bite. Scenes run on for seemingly hours with only a few jokes or plot points thrown in.

The lack of jokes is a problem that consistently plagues the film. Screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith, the man behind "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," unfortunately confuses '70s references for humor. It starts of somewhat amusing, but after the audience realizes that 'weren't the '70s goofy?' is the only joke "Dark Shadows" has to offer, the movie's runtime becomes a test of endurance.

It doesn't help matters that the film itself feels uncertain of what mood it is going for. Some parts attempt to be campy fun, but they're mixed in with tediously long stretches of overheated dialogue, all delivered with a straight face. I know the movie's origin is a soap opera, but it may have been wise to take the "21 Jump Street" approach and throw the source material off a cliff for the sake of the audience.

"Dark Shadows'" balance issues aren't isolated to its tone. Burton and Grahame-Smith struggle to fit all of the various plotlines and characters into the story, leaving very little to care about. The love story between Barnabas and the mansion's new governess ("In Time's" Bella Heathcote) is given all of two scenes to develop, and several other plot detours fare even worse. It screams of trying to shoehorn the television show's multiple plotlines into two hours.

There are a few pleasures to be found in the film. Jackie Earle Haley's deadpan delivery is good for a few laughs, and Depp is trying his best to wring what humor there is to get from his part. But after an overblown, CGI-filled climax, most of the audience's sympathy will have been pushed too far.

Even Burton's usual aesthetic panache can't help, as the creative spark from "Big Fish" seems to have been extinguished, relying on the same rote tricks. His unique brand of visuals has become exactly that: a brand. His fans are better off waiting on October's "Frankenweenie" to see if there's still room in that brand for creativity.

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