Dark Shadows has always been a somewhat problematic proposition for a film conversion, especially as it’s been brought to the screen by people who are obviously in love with the original US soap opera that ran between 1966 and 1971. The show ran for over 1,000 episodes and featured a vast array of characters and all sorts of different supernatural shenanigans. Those then needed to be distilled down to a single movie that’ll work for a generation who’ve never seen the show.
It’s a challenge that Dark Shadows only partially succeeds in, with the whole thing having the whiff of being filled things Johnny Depp and Tim Burton wanted to include, but which might have been better to have dispensed with.
In an extended prologue set in the late 18th Century, we meet Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), son of a wealthy businessman who’s built himself a huge fortune and a palatial mansion in the New World. After spurning the advances of the maid Angelique (Evan Green), Barnabas discovers he’s bitten off more than he can chew as Angie is a witch, and an extremely vengeful one at that. She kills his parents, causes his girlfriend (Bella Heathcote) to jump off a cliff, turns Barnabas into a vampire and then locks him in a coffin for what she hopes will be eternity.
However eternity turns out to be just under two centuries, with construction work digging Barnabas up in 1972. He rises from his coffin to find the family fortune on the point of collapse, the mansion in disrepair and his descendants plagued by possibly supernatural problems and curses. The vampire sets out to restore the family’s fortunes, which is made all the more difficult due to the fact that Angelique is still around, still as beautiful as ever and just a determined to destroy everything about the Collins family, unless Barnabas will finally agree to be with her forever.
As you’d expect from Tim Burton, Dark Shadows looks wonderful, with bright colours and great production design. However as we’re also increasingly coming to expect from Burton, a potentially great concoction fails to live up to its potential.
The main problem is Seth Grahame Smith’s script, which feels as if it’s trying to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks and as a result doesn’t really make a huge amount of anything. Threads are picked up and dropped, underwritten characters seem to change moment-by-moment depending on what the script needs from them, and plot ideas come out of left field only to vanish. It’s partly a result of a seeming indecision over whether Dark Shadows is a modern movie in its own right, a spoof of soaps or a homage to the original.
Johnny Depp’s obviously having a blast playing a character he’s loved since he was a child, but even his kooky persona and white-face makeup can’t carry the film on its own. It’s a great shame as everyone involved seems to be doing their best, but with a script that’s all over the place and a lack of the momentum needed for a truly joyous comic supernatural diversion, it adds up to something that passes the time but is essentially a missed opportunity. It seems to be happening more and more with major Hollywood projects that the scripts feel as if they’ve been through so many hands and had so much input from so many different sources that they lose cohesion. That certainly seems to have happened here, which is a great shame. All the other pieces are in place for an extremely fun ride, but without a strong screenplay to hold it together, it’s never going to hit the heights it could.
That said, there’s still fun to be had and sections of the movie show us what could have been. The movie has fun with Barnabas being a man out of time thrown into the 70s and Eva Green has some wonderful moments as the obsessively vengeful Angelique. Likewise there’s humour from Helena Bonham Carter as psychiatrist Dr. Hoffman and Johnny Lee Miller as the sleazy Roger Collins, while Michelle Pfeiffer does a lot with only a little as current Collins matriarch Elizabeth. Unfortunately though all three of those characters end up suffering from a lack of consistency and a tendency towards the random.
There’s fun to be had with Dark Shadows, at least in parts, but overall it can’t help but feel like a missed opportunity.
Overall Verdict: Great production design, good acting and quite a few fun scenes can’t hide the fact that Tim Burton’s latest is undone by a script that never quite feels like it’s decided what it’s doing.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac