Review: ‘Dark Shadows’ (it did not work)

If director Tim Burton was shooting for better than Beetlejuice, he wound up with worse than Mars Attacks.

Over two hundred years earlier, the Collins family moved from England to the “new world” and settled in Maine, increasing their holdings in the fishing business. Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) was just a young man when Collinsport was established and their hilltop manor of Collinwood was built. After spurning the advances of Angelique (Eva Green) as nothing more than a fling, the wronged woman indulges herself in witchcraft to not only turn Baranabas into a vampire but curse everyone with the name Collins for all time. Fast-foward to 1972 where a chained coffin is found buried with the undead Barnabas still inside. Rising in a new century, Barnabas finds his former family name tarnished and the estate in shambles, vowing to restore it all to its glory days once again. Unfortunately, the witch who cursed the Collins isn’t quite done with them yet and, worse yet, still hasn’t gotten over Barnabas.

One could call this a film about obsession, but it would more correctly be called a mess. For the uninformed, “Dark Shadows” was a soap opera of the supernatural about a vampire patriarch trying to hold his beloved family together. It was played straight in spite of poor production values and cheap effects but still earned its place in television history with five seasons of spooky storytelling. Forty years later, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp tried to resurrect this undead idea, but the problem is in the execution. For all the beautiful, creepy atmosphere and set pieces, the story is a series of hollow plot points without any real flow. If you forgive all the dangling threads and plot holes, what remains could be assembled in any order and still not tell a better story. Did the producers believe this forgivable as long as the movie was funny, or were they thinking at all?

Everything starts to go awry shortly after Barnabas arrives in 1972. Initially, the idea of an eighteenth century man in the twentieth century has merit, because 1972 must seem as alien to modern audiences as it does to Depp’s vampire out of time. Barnabas kills when he must but not in an evil way; it’s all about family. Had the film continued like this, it might have worked, but there are too many set pieces (mostly shown in the trailers) that only seem to exist for a gag and completely take you out of what might have been a compelling yet quirky film.

Case in point: Depp’s Barnabas backs into a ray of sunlight streaming through a window, causing his skin to smoulder and eventually setting his back on fire. Depp pretends he doesn’t notice the heat but wonders where that burning smell is coming from (really?), prompting Willie (a grossly underused Jackie Earle Haley) to douse him with a bucket of water (hilarious!) At the same time, this is the reveal to the other characters that Barnabas is a monster, who are all backing away from him (horror!) These scene treatments undermine the potential drama with gags that aren’t funny, and that’s one of many such offenses. It’s also odd how many times “the vampire” is in the sunlight and doesn’t start to smoulder except when it’s convenient to the plot or a gag.

Barry Sonnenfeld may have hit the proverbial coffin nail on the family’s head with The Addams Family movie, but there are too many moments in this incarnation of Dark Shadows (especially at the end of the film) where all of the characters seem to be sitting around waiting for everyone else to do something while the audience is waiting for ANYTHING to happen. When something finally does, it’s sadly pathetic or doesn’t make any sense. Most of the characters are a waste of the actors portraying them, living props no more important to the story than background extras.

Why cast Michelle Pfeiffer and Chloë Grace Moretz if they have nothing to do? The character of Roger Collins isn’t worth the two throwaway scenes he’s in. Even cameos by Christopher Lee and Alice Cooper fall flat. Only Bella Heathcote (as Victoria Winters / Josette DuPres) has anything more to do than stand around (meaning she falls off of things quite a bit). Also, if you’re going to have magic and the supernatural in your fantasy story, establish the ground rules and don’t break them unless there’s a good reason. This is one of those movies when one wonders if the better story was left on the cutting room floor (and who to blame for that). From the first trailers, fans of the original series were already worried, but after watching the finished film, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that all the funny bits are in the trailers and what’s left is a beautiful production design in need of a worthy plot.

(a one and a half skull recommendation out of four)

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