For their eighth collaboration, director Tim Burton and lead actor Johnny Depp have revamped the cult TV series Dark Shadows, condensing its many episodes into less than two hours, and doing a fairly decent, if functional, job of it.
Both Burton and Depp are confessed fans of the original show, and while that seemed like a great mix when this project was announced, it may well be their passion that ultimately takes the sting out of this. They perhaps enjoyed the central character too much, at the expense of the rest, and settled on a script which doesn’t quite hang together. Depp plays Barnabas Collins, head of the Collins family, a role which Canadian actor Jonathan Frid originally occupied. Frid sadly passed away recently, but he would surely have approved of this iteration of his character, because Depp inhabits it well.
In a short prologue, Depp’s voiceover explains how Barnabas’ family moved from Liverpool to America in the mid-18th century and started a fishing business, around which an entire town, Collinsport, sprung up and began to flourish. During this time, Barnabas courted two women: first, Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), a house maid who he left in favour of Josette (Bella Heathcote), the woman he intended to spend his life with. Unfortunately for him, Angelique was secretly a witch, whose jealously knew no bounds. For Barnabas, choosing another over her would prove fatal: Angelique murdered Josette, turned him into a vampire and buried him alive. Nearly 200 years later, in 70s America, he is accidentally dug up and released.
This opening segment possesses a narrative focus and drive which most of the rest of the film sadly lacks. Barnabas’ awakening in the 70s invites plenty of fish-out-of-water comedy, particularly as he moves in with the latest generation of the Collins family, now living in his mansion, their family business threatened to breaking point by a rival business headed by ageless witch Angelique (the very same). They’re a dysfunctional group, headed by Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her no-good brother Roger (Johnny Lee Miller). Elizabeth’s daughter Carolyn (Chloe Moretz) and Roger’s son David (Gulliver McGrath) have issues of their own, the latter of which is being treated by Dr. Julia Hoffman, a live-in psychiatrist played by Helena Bonham Carter. Jackie Earle Haley, as an alcoholic housekeeper, completes the set.
Barnabas’ introduction into 70s life in America is played for plenty of laughs, but the thrust of the story is lost in them. Sub plots involving the other characters in the house tend to get overlooked. Burton would rather include a cameo performance by Alice Cooper than develop any real emotional connection between Barnabas and his new love interest Victoria (also Bella Heathcote, a casting quirk which seems irrelevant). By the time we get to the disappointing finale in the Collins’ mansion, some of the strands are buried too deep to be revived, a twist involving one of the minor characters fails to ignite any interest, and one event involving a ghost is deployed with seemingly little consideration for the logic of the plot.
Meanwhile, we have a relationship between Eva Green’s snarling, sexy witch and Barnabas’ ever-polite, out-of-time vampire to enjoy. Green gives it a good go, but her performance really cries out for a stronger role to sink her teeth into, and her evil witch is ultimately not one of the greats. Depp, meanwhile, puts in a very mannered, committed performance, and he carries the film. The only issue is that not enough of his screen time is spent doing anything really meaningful to the story.
Dark Shadows works best as a comedy, and after the introduction it becomes rather dramatically light. There are good performances, in particular another Johnny Depp curio to add to the pile, but it feels like less than the sum of its parts. It does look great, though; Burton is supremely comfort able doing this sort of thing, but after Alice in Wonderland and this, one can’t help but wish that he’d step outside his comfort zone just a little on the next project.