1,125 episodes aired of the daytime serial “Dark Shadows” from 1966 to 1971 and as a teenager, there may have been no bigger fan that Tim Burton. For years, Burton has wanted to bring the story of Barnabas Collins to the big screen and his cinematic partner for life, Johnny Depp, echoed that same desire. As Burton and Depp collaborate for their 8th film together, Dark Shadows is a film arriving with a great deal of promise that Burton and Depp’s excitement could translate to something quite unique and special.
Sadly, Dark Shadows is an unsettled stew of gothic vampire story, an Addams Family-style witty and self-aware comedy, and a dark, foreboding, revenge tale. Perhaps Tim Burton was blinded by his desire to bring a life’s ambition to the big screen, but with Seth Grahame-Smith’s screenplay, Dark Shadows is a rambling and meandering film that never decides what it wants to be, who it wants to appeal to, with a screenplay that feels ripped up, taped back together again, and likely not at all what was originally intended.
A good film exists in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows and for awhile you get to experience it. As Barnabas Collins, Depp delivers a terrific performance, absorbing into the body of a vampire raised from the dead 196 years after he was entombed by an evil witch. Once unearthed, Barnabas rises in 1972 and returns to Collinswood Manor, the vast and impressive 200-room mansion that he and his family shared when Barnabas was alive and well. Residing in Collinswood Manor are Barnabas’ distant relatives, Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her brother, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), her teenage daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), her 10-year old son David (Gulliver McGrath), a caretaker (Jackie Earle Haley), and a live-in psychologist, Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter). The legacy of the Collins family is adorned in countless portraits along the walls of Collinswood Manor and none featured more prominently than that of Barnabas, in the family room above the fireplace.
With one caretaker to maintain the entire mansion, now nearly in ruin, the Collins’ descendants are almost destitute with their seafood canning business nearly bankrupt. Elizabeth has somehow found a way to hire a governess named Victoria (Bella Heathcote) to oversee David, who is apparently difficult to take care of. Victoria is thrilled with the new job and has no idea that she will be encountering a dysfunctional family, the arrival of a 200-year old vampire, and a mysterious project manager named Angelique (a miscast and disappointing Eva Green) who seems curiously taken with the new governess, the Collins family, and the arrival of Barnabas Collins.
Dark Shadows is visually striking, as are all of Tim Burton’s films, but being dazzled with the impressive set design can only go so far and Burton seems to be making a Tim Burton Movie, almost in spite of the script before him. Dark Shadows is witty but never funny and when the movie makes a pitch for intensity, it falls quite short. Opening with the always maddening “I am telling you what is happening while you are watching it” narration track, Dark Shadows seems lost and incredibly long. At 113 minutes, the Seth Grahame-Smith screenplay continues tossing in new developments deep into the film, including one character’s nonsensical transformation which occurs completely out of the blue and means absolutely nothing whatsoever. Continually you are left scratching your head, baffled at what we are supposed to be thinking or feeling.
I did like elements of the film. As referenced, Johnny Depp is terrific and Chloe Grace Moretz offers some fun and rebellious moments as a 1970’s teen daughter. Helena Bonham Carter has a few winning moments as the psychologist who is likely in need of one herself, and the film hits an engaging stride with Barnabas’ rebirth and acclimation with his long lost family. Overall, there is just too much inconsistency to ignore and whether Tim Burton gave up on the screenplay and chose to follow his own vision of a Tim Burton-Dark Shadows or this film became a victim of too many chefs in the editing room kitchen, Dark Shadows is an amusing and aesthetically accomplished misfire.