In the late 18th Century, Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) spurned the love of the witch Angelique (Eva Green) who cursed him, turning him into a vampire and having him buried alive. In 1972, his coffin is found and opened and he returns to his beloved mansion Collinswood where his descendants still live and he discovers the world has changed a lot in the 200 years he was gone, although Angelique is still alive and trying to ruin the Collins business and name.
By now, the history of director Tim Burton and his best bud and frequent collaborator Johnny Depp is fairly well known with watershed high points Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, followed by lots of Ed-less movies that have received mixed reactions. In fact, it almost seems like the weaker the results of their collaboration, the more money a movie will make at the box office, and if that rule holds, Warner Bros should be very happy with the box office performance of Dark Shadows.
You may already know that this is based on the cult supernatural soap opera of the 60s, but rather than maintaining the shoddy charm of the television shows notoriously poor production values, the film is on the opposite side of the spectrum as Tim Burton and his team do an amazing job introducing the lush environment of Collinsport, Maine, where the story mainly takes place.
It opens with the backstory of Barnabas Collins and how he came to be cursed by a witch before it jumps forward to 1972 where we meet Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcoate) who comes to Collinswood to take a job as a nanny to young troubled David, whose mother died years earlier. Barnabas returns to find this dysfunctional family residing in his mansion, and we end up with something that crosses The Addams Family with The Witches of Eastwick.
Working from a script by author Seth Grahame-Smith, the storytelling isnt particularly clear – for instance, its not obvious that Hoffman is after Barnabas blood at first, because there seems to be a good chunk of that subplot missing. For the most part, the movie purports itself to be a comedy, but it’s not terribly funny and the funniest gags have been pretty much played to death in the commercials and trailers. Many of the jokes just seem very obvious and lazy, doing little to lift the film’s laconic pace that contains just enough of the required soap opera melodrama expected from fans of the TV show, though all handled relatively tongue-in-cheek. At times, it feels like theyre trying too hard to be weird for the sake of being weird, yet they never go so far out on the limb that it ever really feels particularly daring.
You have to give Depp credit for committing himself to being covered in white pancake make-up with blood red lipstick and eye shadow and his delivery of flowery Old English speech, but its not exactly a character that ever rises above its singular joke. We get it. Barnabas is a vampire living out of time, a fish-out-of-water trying to adjust to the very different world. That one joke only goes so far and we never fully understand his motivations since his behavior is just as erratic as Depps other recent creations.
As always, Burton has assembled a terrific cast around Depp and the women are particularly strong, including another great performance by Michelle Pfeiffer as the family matriarch. By the second half, she seems to have taken a backseat to some of the other women, such as Helena Bonham Carter as the alcoholic psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman, whose bright orange wig offers some of the movie’s rare color and Eva Green as the sultry and deliciously evil witch Angelique with a big grin and a surprisingly good American accent. Chloe Moretz is also decent as teen daughter Caroline who is becoming aware of her own sexuality, while even relative newcomer Bella Heathcoate helps to balance Depps constant posturing and make it more watchable.
It’s hard to hate the movie because every single scene looks so damn good due to the efforts of production designer Rick Heinrichs and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, but by the fifth or sixth time you see waves crashing against the rocks, you start to wonder if Burton himself realized the story didnt have the depth to keep audiences interested. Burton’s frequent collaborator Danny Elfman offers a glorious and epic score combining his usual orchestral flourishes with period tunes from the time, and just when you’ve thought that Burton and Depp have gone as far into Goth territory as they can go, rocker Alice Cooper shows up in a forced cameo performance.
There’s some fun to be had in Burton and Depps attempt to reinvigorate the cult classic from the 60s, though lacking depth of previous collaborations makes it feel like its trying too hard but never quite achieving what it set out to do. Your enjoyment may depend entirely on how much seeing Depp as a vampire makes up for the weak storytelling.