While definitely closer in tone to what director Tim Burton should be making with his vivid imagination, wit, and eye for detail, Dark Shadows shouldn’t be heralded as a comeback for the director just yet. Very loosely based on Dan Curtis’ vastly more serious gothic drama, Burton’s tongue-in-cheek approach boasts great performances from a game cast, and some top notch production design, but the material never once rises above anything more than a mild amusement. The potential for this film to serve as a middle ground between the big haired auteur’s beloved Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice feels somewhat squandered by a lightweight script and a really terrible final 20 minutes.
Returning once again to the Burtonverse is Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins, a former English blueblood living in a coastal Maine town named after his family, who becomes cursed after spurning a young lover that turns out to be a witch named Angelique (Eva Green). Transformed into a vampire to prolong the suffering brought on by the death of his true beloved, Barnabas is eventually buried alive in the woods by an angry mob and awakened almost 200 years later in 1972.
Retuning to his beloved Collinwood Manor, Barnabas seems pleased to see his bloodline still in possession of the estate, but dismayed at the state of disrepair the family fishing business has fallen into. New patriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) simply throws up her hands when it comes to dealing with her creepy son (Gulliver McGrath), her brooding, moody rocker daughter (Chloe Grace Moretz), and her scheming, unfaithful husband (Jonny Lee Miller). Add to that a lackadaisical groundskeeper (Jackie Earle Haley), a chronically hungover shrink hired to keep David in line (Helena Bonham Carter), and a new nanny (Bella Heathcote) who looks like a dead ringer for Barnabas’ deceased love, and you have a full house of familial dysfunction that has become a staple for Burton.
The main through line for the story is the continued passionate and economic rivalry between Angelique and Barnabas, as she also now has a town named after her and stolen away most of the fishermen in the state to drive the Collins’ clan further into poverty. The story works quite well because Depp and Green give the movie most of the energy and life that doesn’t come from Bo Welch’s admittedly stunning production design.
The character work turned in here by Depp is shockingly good considering he was very close to becoming a caricature of himself after the Pirates of the Caribbean films and his most recent collaborations with Burton. The buttoned up and occasionally vicious Barnabas, also manages to have a lot of heart and disarming politeness, putting the character in line with the oddballs Depp patented earlier in his career rather than the one’s he’s become known for these days. But if anyone walks off with the movie under her arm, it’s Green who seems to be channeling Meryl Streep from Death Becomes Her or was taking notes from Pfeiffer about her Witches of Eastwick performance in the best possible ways. She walks the fine line between malevolence and camp that Burton clearly strives for here, and it comes in extremely handy as the movie progresses.
It’s a shame about the rest of the cast, though, because Burton commits so fully to building the world of the Collins’ that it becomes clear that most of these supporting characters are going to be footnotes that only come into play at the very end when the film feels the need to speed up and reach a good looking, but terribly flawed conclusion. Miller and Hayley do great work and get some of the biggest laughs in the film, but they get shrugged off in Seth Grahame-Smith’s loosely constructed screenplay because the movie simply doesn’t know what to do with them. Ditto Pfeiffer (who it’s great to see in anything these days) who has a character that seems like it’s going somewhere, but it never does.
The movie plays up the fact that Heathcote’s character will have great importance, but she’s forgotten about almost entirely for the middle portion of the film, only to be trotted out for the obvious conclusion. As for Carter and Moretz, they’re fine, but what happens to them in the middle and final thirds of the film, respectively, serves to very arbitrarily set up the films’ final scene which reeks of wishful thinking.
The film gets by just fine on mildly amusing fish out of water gags and a good balance between the dark and the light. Dark Shadows isn’t the full on bubblegum confection that the marketing suggests, and overall the film’s a lot better for it. The jokes actually don’t start coming until a good 20 minutes in and after a fairly melancholy opening. Even when the jokes do arrive, they aren’t in the vein of the hyper-awareness of 21 Jump Street, another comedic take on a far too serious television series. When the film sticks to the campy nature of watching Barnabas talking to stoned hippies and trying to figure out who this Alice Cooper character is, Burton’s creation and vision manages to be quite charming.
But that all stops once the special effects heavy dénouement kicks in and the film stops being logical even within its own kooky world and plot elements arrive seemingly out of left field in a lazy assembly of happenings simply designed to end a film the writer had no clue how to end. By about the 90 minute mark of this nearly two hour film, you can almost hear the projector trying to race to the finish line. The ending looks great, but none of it really signifies anything and the final sting makes the audience care even less about what they just saw because it feels like it really was all for nothing.
The ending doesn’t fully derail the enjoyment I got from the film, though. There’s definitely an undeniable amount of entertainment to be gained from Dark Shadows, and it’s not that I’m being overly charitable towards Burton after his past few stinkers. Overall, the movie’s pretty mediocre. There’s laughs, some thrills, a couple of chills, and I will probably forget the whole endeavour before the week is out, but I’m not going to remember it as a failure. It marks a slight return to form for Burton, but it’s also nothing that we haven’t seen from him before. It’s like a greatest hits album. You know all the songs, and they can make you smile when you’re listening, but then you kind of wonder why you bought it in the first place and you probably never listen to it again.