Dark Shadows is one strange flick. It’s Burton-esque in the truest sense, yet it’s a far cry from the genius usually associated with this descriptor. The eighth collaboration of director Tim Burton and star Johnny Depp, Dark Shadows is an utter mess; narrative strands are all over the shop, character relationships are skimmed over, mythology is confused, and the tone veers wildly from pure horror to campy comedy. As a result, the picture never comes together in any cohesive or satisfying way. To its credit, the film is most certainly not the boisterous comedy its terrible marketing implied, as it seems to be more of a serious gothic horror movie. Nevertheless, this big-budget adaptation of the old TV soap opera of the same name is an utter disappointment, only occasionally displaying the hints of brilliance which should have pervaded its entire 110-minute runtime.
In the 1700s, the Collins Family travel to the New World where they set down permanent roots and establish a successful fishing enterprise. When Barnabas Collins (Depp) falls in love with the beautiful Josette (Heathcote), jealous witch Angelique (Green) enacts a curse which leaves Josette dead and turns Barnabas into an unwitting bloodsucker who’s buried alive by the pitchfork-waving community. When Barnabas is finally set loose from his coffin two centuries later in 1972, his beloved mansion and the Collins name is in disarray. Looking to restore the family name, Barnabas tries to motivate his dysfunctional descendants into action, all the while bonding with the family’s new governess Victoria (Heathcote again) who bears a strong resemblance to his long-lost love Josette. Meanwhile, Angelique hears that Barnabas is back above the ground. Having been infatuated with him for centuries, Angelique vows that she will either have him for herself once and for all, or destroy him for good.
Structurally, Dark Shadows is confused and jumbled, as screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith tried to squeeze as many character arcs, secrets and relationships as he could from 1,200 TV episodes into one self-contained feature. The problem is felt most glaringly in the subplot concerning Victoria. We’re initially led to believe that Victoria has major significance in the story, yet she barely seems to exists once Barnabas arrives (despite her burgeoning romance with him). For that matter, all of the characters are short changed – this is The Johnny Depp Show, permitting little room for any other players to receive sufficient development. Thus, the film is mainly constituted of scenes which make fun of the fact that Barnabas is either out of place in the 20th Century or is a vampire who experiences life differently. The only actual story and character development happens through montage (including the Barnabas/Victoria romance, for Christ sake). Hell, in the space between two scenes, Barnabas even manages to mysteriously organise an enormous party out of nowhere, even securing Alice Cooper as the party’s entertainment. Furthermore, as a result of so little character development, nothing ever seems to be at stake, rendering Dark Shadows hopelessly empty. And when characters suddenly reveal their powers/secrets during the climax, it only leads to several “What the fuck?!” moments.
The key issue with Dark Shadows is one of tone, since the comedic moments are far too broad. It’s therefore jarring to see Barnabas mercilessly slaughtering people one moment, and in the next moment seeing a series of sight gags within musical montages. Even more bewildering is a bizarre love scene in which Barnabas and Angelique literally bounce off the walls together. Nothing quite meshes in the movie – imagine the broad comedy of Mars Attacks! playing out between the horrific scenes of Sleepy Hollow. Dark comedy is fine in a movie like this, but a murderous vampire talking about “birthing hips” is not. Burton usually excels at tone, yet he seems positively lost here.
Ironically, the problem may actually be Johnny Depp. The other performers seem to be aiming for a sombre tone, yet Depp is too quirky and broad when he should be dramatic and macabre. Barnabas is established to be a murderer, not a Beetlejuice-like creation better suited for The Addams Family. Out of the cast, the most notable standout is Bella Heathcote. The little-known Australian actress (previously seen in 2010’s Beneath Hill 60) possesses a natural beauty and an inherent understanding of drama and romance. She’s positively disarming whenever she shows up, so it’s a shame that her talents are so underutilised. The rest of the actors are fine, though they, too, lack sufficient opportunities to distinguish themselves. To pay tribute to the television show and vampire movies in general, several original Dark Shadows cast members (including the original Barnabas Collins, Jonathan Frid, who died shortly before the film’s release) and Christopher Lee show up for cameos which don’t amount to much. Alice Cooper’s brief cameo is a highlight, however.
To Tim Burton’s credit, he can still orchestrate horror commendably well. When Dark Shadows is dark, it takes off marvellously. The first 20 minutes or so are particularly good – the prologue is spot-on, with sumptuous production values and Danny Elfman’s atmospheric score promising that something moody and creepy is to come. Following this, the haunting melodies of the song Nights in White Satin play over the opening credits, which is a masterful touch. What a shame that things subsequently begin to decline. To be sure, Dark Shadows has enough isolated moments of brilliance to ensure that it’s worth checking out for fans of Burton and/or Depp. Or perhaps these moments will just prove frustrating to said fans, as they’ll only see hints of the limitless potential that the film fails to capitalise upon.