Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: We’re dusting off a Watch This tradition and looking back on unsung summer blockbusters—the big movies that opened to critical scorn or audience indifference during the warmer weeks, but are better than their reputations (or tepid box office) suggest.
Dark Shadows (2012)
Tim Burton’s ’90s output may be recalled with nostalgia now, but back in the day, projects like Batman Returns and Mars Attacks! were regularly accused of attempting to haphazardly paper over muddy storytelling with their visual sensibilities. In retrospect, these criticisms read like a misunderstanding of how Burton infuses mainstream would-be event movies (a superhero sequel, an alien-invasion picture) with dream logic and a cartoony liveliness. Given the director’s history as a mascot for style over substance, Dark Shadows fulfills a prophecy of sorts: It’s a Tim Burton movie that’s nearly as incoherent as the mess his detractors had been describing for years.
It was also, amusingly, slotted into an event-movie release date with a concept—Johnny Depp as a lovelorn vampire—that sounded solidly commercial at the time, when Twilight-mania was in full swing. The project actually originated with Depp, who loved the old supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows and wanted to play vampire Barnabas Collins in a film version. He convinced Burton to take on the project, and given its oddball source material, stop-start storytelling rhythms, and mixed reviews, the movie probably did about as well at the box office as was possible at the time—which is to say, not especially well. But divorced from the hype, the subsequent downfall of its faltering star, and the endlessly tedious debate about when Burton lost his touch completely (short answer: never), Dark Shadows is a lot of fun.
A generous interpretation of the movie’s oscillation between gothic romance and fish-out-of-water comedy (which itself oscillates between broad and ghoulish) is that it represents Burton’s attempt to recreate his source material’s genuine strangeness. Even if it’s really just the filmmaking team struggling with their approach, the individual moments still glow, not least because of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (who followed this movie with the similarly gorgeous Inside Llewyn Davis and Big Eyes, the latter also for Burton). His mix of soft tones and dramatic shadows is perfect for a story about a cursed creature of the night (Depp) who emerges from a centuries-long burial in 1972 Maine. He rejoins his family (now populated with his distant descendants), falls in love with their governess (Bella Heathcote), and fights off the witch Angelique (Eva Green) he spurned back in the 18th century.
Since Dark Shadows, Green has become one of Burton’s regular collaborators. At the time, she was a Burton newbie acting alongside vets like Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and Michelle Pfeiffer. She steals the movie from the lot of them, just as her Angelique attempts to rob the Collins family of their livelihood. Green feels particularly in sync with Burton’s sensibilities when the cracks start to show, literally: At the film’s climax, Angelique’s dolled-up bluster looks like actual porcelain, with fissures forming as she throws herself into destroying and/or possessing Barnabas for good. Throughout all of the vengeful antics, Green makes it clear that Angelique’s unrequited obsession with Barnabas Collins is her curse, matching the vampirism she gave him.
Not everything in Dark Shadows has this much monster-movie poetry. Much of it is merely kooky, a series of macabre vignettes with Depp in the requisite heavy make-up and blood flowing as freely as a PG-13 rating will allow. Depp minces, werewolves pop up unexpectedly, and waves crash forebodingly against the shore. If this is a minor pleasure in Burton’s filmography, it’s a more substantial lark in the realm of the contemporary summer blockbuster, which often stave off loopiness, gore, and directorial personality at all costs. There’s a giddy thrill in watching Burton spend big-studio money on a movie with an eccentric (though not altogether foreign) idea of crowd-pleasing entertainment. Just remember: Mars Attacks! was a flop back in 1996, too.