There’s something to be said for channel surfing. I remember being much younger, bored on a summer day, flipping through TV stations and finding nothing worth sticking with for more than a few moments. Then, suddenly, I was caught in a time warp. The screen went black and white and almost fuzzy. The title card informed me I was watching some show called Dark Shadows. I was quickly entranced by the gothic atmosphere and the mix of soap opera dynamics with supernatural entities, including the hypnotic anti-hero Barnabas Collins (originally played with true flair by Jonathan Frid). I devoured every episode of the show, even tracking down the ill-fated 1991 revival. And now Tim Burton has once again joined forces with Johnny Depp to bring Dark Shadows to the big screen.
Depp plays the infamous Barnabas Collins, head of the Collins family, who live in the town of Collinsport, Maine. Barnabas loves Josette (Bella Heathcote), but still has an affair with household servant Angelique (Eva Green). Angelique wants Barnabas’ love, but when he won’t give it to her, she uses witchcraft to kill everyone close to him, and also turns him into a vampire and has him trapped for two centuries. When Barnabas reawakens, he finds his family in shambles. Now led by matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), the rest of the family indulges in petty whims. Angelique has remained in town, opening a competing cannery to drive the Collins out of business. Barnabas must deal with Angelique’s misplaced affections while dealing with restoring his decadent family to prominence, and also trying to win the hand of new governess Victoria Winters (also Bella Heathcote), a dead ringer for his lost love.
Turning five years of soap opera into a cohesive film is no easy task. The challenge lies in finding the balance between appeasing existing fans and engaging new audience members. Burton and writer Seth Grahame-Smith (author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) are incapable of pulling it all together. Dark Shadows is a jumbled mess. Characters pop in and out, seemingly at random, making little to no impression. If it’s not Barnabas, Angelique, or Elizabeth, they’re barely worth remembering. And when you’ve got a cast featuring Jackie Earle Haley, Helena Bonham Carter, and Chloe Moretz, and none of them leave an impression, you know you’ve got a problem.
Grahame-Smith’s script doesn’t just lack character; it lacks tension, or even a consistent tone. Barnabas is a fascinating creation, cursed for his love and being stuck in a strange, new time. Instead of capitalizing on this, Burton just makes it a matter of course. He often plays his vampirism for laughs, but also has scenes where Barnabas slaughters innocent people. It’s a strange dichotomy that doesn’t lead to tension but rather a feeling that Burton doesn’t have a grasp on the material, a feeling further enforced by the glut of supernatural creatures that have absolutely nothing to do. It doesn’t help that this big budget production can’t summon the atmosphere of a shoestring soap opera from the 60’s.
It feels like everyone is in a different movie. Michelle Pfeiffer is elegant in the thankless matriarchal role, but Helena Bonham Carter walks around with Ziggy Stardust-orange hair, looking like a Warhol painting come to life. Chloe Moretz phones it in as much as Burton seems to, simply taking the paycheck and not caring about the end product. Burton can’t even be bothered to ask Depp to do a Liverpudlian accent (the prologue and later dialogue clearly state Barnabas is from Liverpool). Instead we get Depp’s catch-all English accent, the same one we’ve heard a million times.
Grahame-Smith’s script is equally lazy. It relies on tired tropes to get the audience through to the end. Victoria Winters, the original protagonist of the TV show, gets the worst of it. Her character is reduced to a pretty face for Barnabas to fall in love with, and appears in four scenes tops. It also doesn’t help that Angelique is a far more interesting woman than Victoria, leading the audience to wonder why Barnabas doesn’t just give in and love her like she wants, especially after he sleeps with her. In fact, although Barnabas is set up as the hero (and even gets a saccharine happy ending), it’s Angelique who comes out as the most sympathetic of all the characters. Eva Green plays her to the hilt. Like Gina Gershon in Showgirls, Eva Green knows what kind of movie she’s in and aims for the rafters. She and Pfeiffer are the only bright spots in an otherwise drab picture.
Oh yes, Dark Shadows is drab. While Warner Bros. decided to market the film as a comedy, they simply rounded up the ten jokes that exist in the film and strung them together. Audiences will probably be sorely disappointed. The movie isn’t a comedy, it’s not horror, and it has no suspense, atmosphere, or tension. I can’t say it’s Tim Burton’s worst film, as that would be the abominable Alice In Wonderland, but it’s yet another reminder of how creatively bankrupt and criminally lazy Tim Burton has become in the latter portion of his career.