Oh Tim Burton, you really need to change up your style because your films just aren’t what they used to be. To begin, I’ve seen snippets of the original 70s Darks Shadows but I’m not an expert or a fan so I can’t begin to compare this to the source material. As a film Dark Shadows is a muddled, confusing attempt at recreating a 1970s soap opera. The problems lie not only in star Johnny Depp’s execution of vampire character Barnabas Collins, but in Burton’s obsessive needs to hit the audiences over the head with the 1970s setting. The story borrows too heavily from other things and creates a story that is so intricate it feels like you’re trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube. It’s not the worst film out there but it is a forgettable waste of time.
After losing the love of his life Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) is a vampire who has been trapped in a coffin for over 200 years. Released into the world of the 1970s Collins goes home to discover his once thriving family has been reduced to poverty. In trying to bring back the glory of the Collins’ name Barnabas angers the beautiful Angelique (Eva Green), the reincarnation of the woman who cursed Barnabas and ruined his life centuries ago.
The strange part of Dark Shadows is how effective the movie is when Depp’s character isn’t present. Had the movie simply dropped the attempt to recreate Dark Shadows it could have been a competent film. The various eccentric characters of the Collins family all have their unique strengths that make for a fine ensemble. From Michelle Pfeiffer as the strong-willed matriarch to Chloe Grace Moretz as the rebellious teen with a secret the movie seems to have more connection to The Munsters than Dark Shadows. The rest of the cast, including Johnny Lee Miller and Burton go-to girl Helena Bonham Carter also lend their talents to the ensemble.
Ultimately, Dark Shadows tries to do WAY too many things and succeeds at none of them. Depp is just far too campy in the role and seems to be making a completely different film than the rest of the cast. Much of this has to do with Burton, and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith’s inability to reconcile the opening scene (set in 1760) with the 1970s setting. The fish-out-of-water put in a different locale has been done to death and that leaves the audience to spend far too much time watching Barnabas acclimate to the 1970s. It’s bad enough this version of the 1970s plays like VH1’s I Love the 70s television show. Every single element of the time period is just thrown all over the set. We enter someone’s room or office and it’s littered with pieces of 70s nostalgia like someone threw it up. It doesn’t say anything about the characters; it’s simply used to have the audience find something they remember from the time. It’s a blatant attempt to say “Hey we’re set in the 70s” as if the audience doesn’t know. Add to that the ridiculous get-up Depp wears and you lose all sense of place. Depp is caked in white makeup and long nails looking like Michael Jackson and yet no one in the town or house mentions this. That’s what’s so frustrating, what are the rules of this area? The Collins house is filled with all these supernatural elements from a vampire, to a werewolf, to a ghost, and yet the characters never actually stop to think about it. A certain character is a werewolf, it’s blatantly obvious and yet the Collins’ respond like they’ve never heard of a werewolf in their life! The film also steals too much from other movies, most notably with the Angelique character that is a caricature from Death Becomes Her.
Dark Shadows just doesn’t know what it is. If it’s a comedy it’s not funny. If it’s a horror film it’s overdone and not scary. Barnabas is a failed attempt at a protagonist because the script never balances his vampiric tendencies with the comedy. Is he bad or not? You’re just left with too many questions that it seems the screenwriter and Burton forgot to answer, or failed to even think about. It’s far better than Burton’s last venture, Alice in Wonderland, but it’s still not a good film. It’s a matinee or a DVD rental if you’re a fan of Burton or Depp.