BRIEF SYNOPSIS: After being chained in a coffin by a scorned lover for two hundred years, vampire Barnabas Collins returns to Collinwood manor.
PROS: Well, at least it’s better than the trailers; a couple of clever scenes; Burton’s juxtaposition of Gothic and 1970s stylings; a good cast…
CONS: …wasted by an aimless script and, despite frantic action, a complete lack of energy.
Dark Shadows does not continue director Tim Burton’s artless swan dive into irrelevance but shows him swimming in a shallow pool of it, petulantly splashing and wailing like an unattended toddler upset that his parents are far too busy wrapped up in their own psychodrama to pay attention. Or perhaps he doesn’t care that audiences lost interest in his underdeveloped sense of narrative and overdeveloped sense of cinematography some time after Mars Attacks! or Sleepy Hollow, for the problems plaguing his pictures from the beginning exhibit themselves painfully in this adaptation of Dan Curtis’s Gothic soap opera. Running at just under two hours, it often feels longer than the ABC-TV series’ five-year run.
Although the idea of making yet another movie from a television show often fills me with the kind of dread reserved for trips to the dentist or, worse, a call from relatives, a movie based on Dark Shadows actually seemed like a good idea. The series crawled at a snail’s pace, stretching out two minutes of story—often the same two minutes that would run in front of a modern show’s opening credits—into thirty, including commercials, so even a little tightening held the promise of forward momentum. That the trailers suggested Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (who co-wrote the story with John August) reimagined everything as a wild comedy didn’t bother me, either—yes, those trailers looked awful, but at least they were different from the staid campiness of its source material. Dark Shadows isn’t as bad as the trailers suggest, but that only elevates it into a different level of meh.
It starts, as so many movies do, with backstory. In the middle of the eighteenth century the Collins family travels to North America from Liverpool with their son Barnabas (Johnny Depp, who chews scenery to mush), who becomes a playboy in Collinsport, Maine (the town created by his father, played by Ivan Kaye) and ultimately becomes master of Colinwood Manor. When he breaks the heart of servant girl and witch Angelina Bouchard (Eva Green, no less the scene diner), she kills his parents and curses his family and his lover Josette du Pres (Bella Heathcote) before transforming Barnabas into a vampire and burying him in a chained coffin in the woods outside of Collinsport.
200 years later, in 1972, the Collins family, now a shadow of its former glory, occupies the ruined mansion. Barnabas, accidentally freed by a group of construction workers, returns to Collinwood Manor and meets his dysfunctional descendants: Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), the matriarch, her brother Roger (Johnny Lee Miller), her teenage daughter Carolyn (Chlöe Moertz), her ten-year-old son David (Gulliver McGrath), and her live-in psychiatrist Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), all of whom greet their long-lost relative with more than a little suspicion. Also joining the family is David’s governess Victoria Winters (also Heathcote), whom Barnabas recognizes immediately as his long-lost Josette. As Barnabas attempts to restore the Collins name to its former glory, Angelique learns he has escaped from his coffin and hatches a plan to win his love.
Burton introduces interesting, quirky characters in the same Day-Glo Gothic trimmings so common to his movies, but Grahame-Smith’s screenplay does nothing with them beyond putting them in a few interesting situations. Victoria sees ghosts, including the ghost of Josette, during her first night in Collinwood Manor. Barnabas, searching for a way to capture Victoria’s heart, reads Erich Segal’s novel Love Story with Carolyn and discusses his romantic feelings while sitting around a campfire with a group of visiting hippies. (“Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” he tells them. “However, it is with sincere regret that I must now kill all of you.” And then drinks their blood). Upon learning that Barnabas is a vampire, Julia hatches a scheme to transform him into a human with transfusions while turning herself into a vampire using his blood. Any one of these might have produced a compelling story, but as played by the cast and director Burton they trail off without actually going anywhere. Worse still, Burton simply does not have the energy to make it the kind of comedy he would like. Gags fall flat despite their potential. When Barnabas suggests a ball might help boost the family’s image, Carolyn suggests hiring Alice Cooper as the entertainment. “Ugliest woman I have ever seen,” Barnabas muses when watching Cooper (playing himself) perform.
Dark Shadows wants to be a joyous romp freed from its camp roots. It feels more like a parody performed by a group of poseurs who don’t get the joke and wind up intermittent laughs by accident. Reimagining a camp classic isn’t a mistake; parodying the camp until it’s sapped of all humor is.