Title: Dark Shadows
Directed By: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Jackie Earle Haley, Jonny Lee Miller, Bella Heathcote, Chloe Grace Moretz, Gulliver McGrath
Dark Shadows has had its ups and downs since day one. As someone who never watched the original show, it was tough to care when word got out that a feature film was in the works, even with Johnny Depp and Tim Burton’s involvement. Even as the cast was packed with famous faces and stills hit the web featuring Burton’s signature highly unique visuals, there was still no need to care with no connection to the material. However, when the film’s first trailer arrived, it finally gave us Dark Shadows newcomers a taste of the world and the way Burton presented it, it seemed like a lot of fun. But sadly, the film version does the TV series a major injustice, leaving this newcomer with absolutely no desire to stick with the concept and check out the source material.
Back in the 1700s, a young Barnabas Collins and his parents arrive in America. When their fishing business flourishes, the Collins are as wealthy as ever and dub the town Collinsport. However, when Barnabas (Depp) falls for Josette DuPres (Bella Heathcote), turning down the affection of Angelique (Eva Green), Angelique doesn’t just go off to find another man; she uses her bewitching abilities to send Josette to her death and turn Barnabas into a vampire. To top it all off, she sentences Barnabas to live out his never-ending life, locked in a coffin, buried underground.
Two centuries later, Barnabas is freed by an unsuspecting construction crew. While his immediate family and friends are long gone, the Collins family lives on, so Barnabas makes it his mission to restore the Collins fishing empire and to support the new generation. Trouble is, Angelique is still a Collinsport resident herself and is still desperate to earn Barnasbas’ love, or else.
Naturally, with the time jump, the first sequence of Dark Shadows focuses on setting up the predicament. It’s appropriately swift and nails a particularly challenging tonal shift. Dark Shadows is generally a comedy, but the first portion of the film is quite tragic. Still, Burton manages to take the tragedy of the 1700s and blend it quite well with the vibrancy of the 1970s by tapping into Depp’s abilities. Depp sells the “young” Barnabas as a young man in love who’s stricken by loss, but then turns him into someone who’s past the grieving stage and is hell-bent on revenge. However, at the same time, the past is never lost; Barnabas is honestly hurt by the loss of Josette and that heartbreak is ever present throughout the film.
However, that’s really one of the only things Dark Shadows has going for it, the performances – well, some of them. Characters are engaging not because of what’s in the script, but because of what this notably talented ensemble does with them. We’re used to seeing Depp embody extreme characters, but time and time again, he does manage to bury his star power in truly good performances. Michelle Pfeiffer makes for an effective matriarch as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard while Helena Bonham Carter makes good use of Dr. Julia Hoffman’s amusing antics.
Heathcote puts on a fine show doubling as Josette and Victoria Winters, the new Collins family governess, but her storyline is far too jumbled to appreciate. In fact, the writers make a very odd and jarring decision to tell a portion of the story from her perspective, something that works well in and of itself, but doesn’t fit within the film as a whole. Plus, Victoria’s relationship with Barnabas is just downright ludicrous. Johnny Lee Miller looks to be having a blast as Roger Collins, but he just doesn’t get enough material to work with to make him particularly memorable.
As for the Collins kids, Gulliver McGrath makes for an excellent David, the youngest of the family and the one everyone assumes to be crazy because he thinks he can see his dead mother. Chloe Moretz, on the other hand, takes the whole soap opera concept way too far. Her performance is distractingly unnatural as is the absurd drone she uses. Green takes Angelique over the top as well, but in her case, it’s rather necessary. Trouble is, editing and camera coverage do her work a disservice, turning her melodrama into pure silliness.
The main issue here is that the story just isn’t all that good. The idea of Barnabas returning to the world in the 1970s with a 1700s mindset is amusing, but his goals and the chain of events are too much for one movie. You just can’t have budding relationships, infidelity, business building, blood stealing, hippies and Alice Cooper in one movie. And, on top of that, Dark Shadows’ 113-minute running time already feels far too long.
With no time to fully digest any of the emotional elements embedded in the story, all we’re left with is Dark Shadows’ humor and while the gags do work at times, generally, they’re far too forceful or simply just unfunny. The only thing that makes this one worthwhile is the opportunity to enter another Tim Burton-created universe. Story woes aside, Burton is certainly one of the best of the best when it comes to putting an audience in a highly stylized, vibrant and intriguing new world. You may not care much for what happens to the characters, but there sure is a lot to ogle while they go about their nonsensical business.