Review: 'Dark Shadows', starring Johnny Depp and Eva Green
They're creepy and they're kooky, mysterious and...oh, that's another crazy horror TV family. Dark Shadows has managed to achieve some measure of cult status thanks to its quirky, macabre premise, more so than for any claim to being good. It was unique at least, as fairly serious goth soap operas featuring monsters and parallel universes are kinda hard to come by nowadays. You won't have to look hard to find the yearly Dark Shadows Festival, and the show has been attempted as a remake on more than one occasion. They all failed. Let's face it, remaking a series that seems to defy typical genre conventions is a tough act. Since most people have no clue what the heck Dark Shadows was, and a TV series is a proven failure, what's the best way to make use of this niche property? Make a movie out of it.
Unfortunately that seems to be the only consideration at play in this tired and disappointing version of Dark Shadows, made even worse by the presence of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, who on paper would seem to be the perfect fit. Over the years, Burton has strayed further away from original material, shutting off much of his creative genius in order to bring to life the vision of others, and this would be the best evidence that all those years away have caused him to lose his touch. The same goes for Depp, who in his eighth collaboration(!!!) with Burton has fallen into the same comfortable formula as him. Burton appears perfectly happy to apply his talents to substandard, franchise friendly material. Depp, who has spent more time playing goofball characters than actual human beings, has reached the point where it looks as if he's not even trying anymore.
This Dark Shadows bears many of the hallmarks of the original series, Burton-ized for maximum marketability. That's not to say that making an obviously mainstream film is a bad thing. It's just that what made Burton so special is that he could do it without it ever feeling like he was compromising his artistic vision. Those days, sadly, are gone, traded in for half-hearted love triangles and lazy culture clash jokes sprinkled with spiffy 1970s rock tunes. The film begins promisingly in 1760, where the Collins clan have uprooted themselves and moved to Maine, where they began a thriving seafood company that powers the entire town's economy. They're so beloved that the town actually becomes known as Collinsport, but that's about where all the good cheer ends. Young Barnabas Collins(Depp) has become the object of desire of their servant girl, Angelique(Eva Green), and he has given in to passion with her on numerous occasions, even though he has found true love with the beautiful Josette(Bella Heathcote). When Barnabas tries to break things off with Angelique, she gets revenge by casting a murderous spell on Josette, destroying the Collins family, and cursing Barnabas as a vampire. Oh, and then she has him buried alive.
Fast forward a couple of hundred years to 1972, and the Collins family is still feeling the effects of Angelique's curse. The once stately Collins Manor has fallen into disarray, broken and disheveled. The family business is in tatters, with the surviving Angelique using the years to take over the seafood industry for herself, sending the Collins' into ruin. All that remains of the family are a handful of heirs with secrets and quirks galore: the regal matriarch, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard(Michelle Pfeiffer); her insufferable, gold-digging brother(Johnny Lee Miller); the rebellious teenage daughter, Carolyn(Chloe Moretz); and the troubled 10-year old son, David(Gully McGrath). Things begin to turn around with the arrival of Victoria Winters(Heathcote again) as the new governess, who happens to be the spitting image of Josette. When Barnabas is accidentally unearthed from his grave(and promptly slaughters everyone nearby), he rejoins the family and sets out to restore them to their greater glory.
Of course it won't be easy, especially when Barnabas quickly falls for Victoria, and she seems drawn mysteriously to him. Like a replay from their youth, Angelique jealously does everything in her power to steal Barnabas away, inciting a rivalry between her and the Collins clan that threatens to consume the town. What could have been a hilarious and spirited war between supernatural foes, mixed with Burton's freakish flair for the dramatic, turns out to be a one-note affair. Much of the humor derives for Barnabas's inability to adapt to modern times, spazzing out over the "tiny songstress" singing on the television. He's generally lost in the cultural freedom of the time period, although he seems to have the "free love" ideal down pretty well. Burton, along with horror novelist turned screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith(Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), mine the fish out of water humor for all it's worth. They're actually quite funny for awhile, but like most of Depp's impersonations they wear thin really quick. It doesn't help that the rest of the Collins clan are basically ignored, seen only when reacting to some misstep Barnabas has made. Moretz, a fantastic and mature young actress is badly miscast as Carolyn, a vampy bit of jailbait with a snotty attitude and great "birthing hips". Not even Helena Bonham Carter, such a staple and a highlight of many Burton movies, has much to do here as the family psychiatrist, Dr. Julia Hoffman. The most interesting thing about her, other than the momentary "fling" she has with the over-sexed Barnabas, is her blazing scarlet hair. Only Eva Green's busty and sinful performance as Angelique has any hint of life to it. She can curse me anytime she wants. We just aren't given much of a reason to care about anybody, and that includes Barnabas.
The fundamental problem is the inability to blend the show's campy, soap opera elements with Burton's rather specific sort of black comedy. The tone is all over the map, from dark and rather vicious, to downright silly. Sometimes this can be a good thing, and Burton has shown many times he can usually find a way to make these elements work in perfect harmony. He never pulls it off here, though, and a big part of the problem is Graham-Smith's haphazard writing. Having read both of his popular, genre mash-up novels, that inconsistency is a recurring theme. He's a writer with a lot of cool ideas but little clue how to pull them off. That fits what happens to Dark Shadows to a tee. There's so much potential here, from the concept to the cast, that it's aggravating to sit and watch it go absolutely nowhere. At least it looks like a Burton film. He certainly hasn't lost his touch for art and production design.
Burton and Depp have stated in the past how they were huge fans of theTV series, and it's mainly due to them that this film exists. They must've only really enjoyed the occasional episode or two, because it quickly becomes apparent that they have no idea where a Dark Shadows movie should lead. Clocking in at a ponderous 113 minutes, you start to feel every second of it, and the ending indicates the possibility of sequels. Rather than going in that direction, maybe Burton and Depp should just get together and pop in the Blu-Rays for a weekend marathon.