Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green, Helena Bonham Carter
Is there any more bizarrely specific subgenre of film than the Tim Burton fantasy story where Johnny Depp plays a pale weirdo? I should think not. Dark Shadows is their latest outing, a film which didn't really seem necessary when it was first announced and seems even less so now that it's been made. An adaptation of the soap opera from the 1960s/70s that ratchets up the camp factor to about 110, Dark Shadows is a funny movie, but one which never seems to have a sense of purpose.
The story begins in 1760, with the arrival of the Collins family in America and their establishing a fishing empire in the town of Collinsport, Maine. The heir of the family is Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) who, after spurning the love of Angelique (Eva Green), a servant who also happens to be a powerful witch, loses both his parents and his fiancee Josette (Bella Heathcote) and then finds himself cursed and transformed into a vampire. Shortly thereafter he's locked into a coffin and burried, forced to spend two centuries in darkness. He's accidentally released in 1972 and returns to the family home, which he finds in disrepair, the family business having gone bust and the family itself in shambles. The great Collinwood Manor is now occupied by Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her teenage daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), his son David (Gulliver McGrath), David's perpetually drunk psychiatrist Julia (Helena Bonham Carter) and governess Victoria (Bella Heathcote), and the mansion's caretaker Willie (Jackie Earle Haley). When he sees the desolate state of the Collins family, and learns that Angelique is the CEO of a rival fishing company, Barnabas decides to restore the family to its former glory.
Things are complicated by several factors. In short: Angelique is still bound and determined to make Barnabas and everyone he loves suffer; Victoria bears a startling resemblance to Barnabas' lost love Josette, whose ghost, it just so happens, has been haunting Victoria since childhood, resulting in her having been committed to an asylum as a child; Julia succumbs to Barnabas' charms and decides to trick him into turning her into a vampire; not to mention the various inter-family dynamics such as Carolyn's teenage malaise, David's odd behaviour, and Roger's general selfishness. Things are also complicated by the fact that Barnabas is a fish out of water who doesn't quite understand or fit into the modern world - though few people around him really seem to notice.
Written by Seth Grahame-Smith (author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter), Dark Shadows is a film with lots of plot threads but no real plot. Characters drift in and out, many absent for such long periods that you almost forget they were ever there to begin with, the story never builds any real momentum, and the characters aren't particularly well-drawn, even Barnabas. As a result, Dark Shadows feels less like one complete story and more like a series of loosely connected sketches or, alternately, like an extended "previously on" that's meant to set up the actual episode.
All that being said, Dark Shadows isn't a horrible movie (though I say that having never seen the TV series and knowing that there are some pretty hardcore fans of the series who probably hated this movie). It has a lot of funny moments and even though Barnabas never becomes a fully realized character, Depp's performance is still entertaining (likewise Pfeiffer and Bonham Carter turn in good performances, and Green is a lot of fun as the villain). The special effects are excellently rendered and the prologue is a beautifully gothic tragedy which has so much promise that you expect a better movie to follow it. But as with so many of Burton's films in the last decade, all the effort seems to have gone into the style, while the other elements seem like afterthoughts. There are moments in Dark Shadows when you can see how it might have been good if it had just stuck with any one of its many ideas and followed through, but as it stands the endeavor feels a little undercooked.