In Tim Burton‘s world, a comedic film adaptation of the 1966-1971 soap opera Dark Shadows would be a bright light with the involvement of his favorites Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, the musical expertise of regular collaborator Danny Elfman, and a stylish Gothic backdrop that Hot Topic shoppers from 2002 would really dig. But much like his last directorial venture Alice in Wonderland, Burton’s flair for drop-dead design and coaxing the very best out of his actors is without backbone of a solid story and script—which he can’t be faulted for, but surely it contributes to a two-film streak of average films.
Dark Shadows opens with an anecdote about the origins of its protagonist Barnabas Collins (Depp), whose Liverpool family moves to Maine to establish a fishing port. The family servant Angelique (Eva Green) turns out to be a witch who places a curse on the Collins family when Barnabas refuses her romantic advances. These schemes include her transforming Barnabas into a vampire and casting a spell on the woman he does love, in forcing her to walk off a cliff. The story really begins a couple of centuries later, in 1972, when a young woman going by the fake name Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote) responds to an ad to become the governess to David Collins (Gulliver McGrath). Indeed, David is a distant relative of Barnabas Collins. The manor’s residents now consist of him, his father Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), the Collins family matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), Elizabeth’s live-in psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Bonham Carter), and manor caretaker Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley). Shortly after Victoria’s arrival, Barnabas is accidentally freed from his coffin and discovers that he’s now in the era of hippies, minidresses, and disco music. He revisits Collinwood Manor, gets to know his distant relatives while keeping his own secrets, and leads them to putting the Collins family name back on the map. However, an old nemesis—none other than Angelique—comes back to unleash her fury on Barnabas and his family.
Dark Shadows does behold good aspects that never quite become great. The backstories of each character are fascinating, particularly Victoria and her connection to Barnabas, but are thrown out in favor of showcasing more gimmicks.The actors, though not at their finest for a mostly bland movie, are excellent in their portrayals of the characters. As Barnabas, Depp combines classic Gothic with subtle comic timing. He fits well into the fearsome yet sophisticated vampire role, but is also fun to watch as a man confused with time. The other standout is Green, a natural femme fatale who oozes sexuality and hard-to-tame craziness as Angelique. Moretz is also impressive in her quite limited part as Carolyn, a provocative and rebellious child of the 70s. She once again proves her versatility as one of Hollywood’s breakout stars, a 180 from her last major role as a curious and innocent French girl in multiple-Oscar winner Hugo. Aside from the likable talent, the film does an impressive job of fusing many settings and keeping them authentic, yet in the fantastical sense that can only be witnessed in Burton’s filmmaking. In exploring Barnabas’ past and in the Collinwood Manor, the buildings at the center and in the backgrounds of scenes and the atmosphere in general screams “old-school horror.” With all the other vampire-related phenomena today, Barnabas and Dark Shadows is more in alignment with what I think of when the term comes up—European, dressed in ultra-formal costume, overdone makeup, and frightening (Although since the film is being billed a comedy, “frightening” quite diminishes Barnabas’ supernatural cred). The film mixes those elements with everything that was hot in the 70s—The cars that were big in the day, the music, the fashion, and even the drugs.
Sadly, the cast and the production design is far from canceling out the mostly unfunny jokes in the script, the lack of depth, and the general jumbled mess the film is. Sure, we can all use a movie with great visuals and one with little to no solid storyline, or one we don’t really have to invest in to enjoy. However, Dark Shadows is one that’s hardly worth giving a bat about. Watching it delivers some mild fun for a while, but by the end, there is simply nothing to feel, no bite. Better to make like Barnabas and stay locked in a coffin for a few hundred years before watching this movie—which means wait for it to rent on Blu-Ray/DVD on a miserable night in if you still actually want to catch it.
Check out the trailer!