Let’s just say this first: Dark Shadows, Tim Burton’s big-screen remake of the cult-classic gothic soap opera that aired on ABC from 1966-1971, is a mess in terms of storytelling and tone. How much you enjoy watching this mess unfold on screen is entirely dependent on two things: 1) how much of a Tim Burton/Johnny Depp devotee you are; and 2) how much you know, loved, or still love the original Dark Shadows as a prime example of soap opera conventions put to inventive use.
As with the TV show, Dark Shadows tells the story of the Collins clan, a once-proud family that helped found the fishing town in which they live, Collinsport, Maine, back in the mid-18th Century. It’s 1972 and Elizabeth Collins (Michelle Pfeiffer), the strong-willed matriarch of the family, is faced with the arrival of Barnabas Collins (Depp), a VERY distant relative who also happens to be a 200-year-old vampire.
Accidentally released from his centuries-old prison, Barnabas carries with him both his loathing of his condition as a monster and his devotion to the concept of “family”. “Family is the only real wealth,” he tells Elizabeth, quoting his own father. This is how he presents himself to her and the others now dwelling in his old home of Collinwood Manor–Roger, Elizabeth’s bottom-feeder brother (Jonny Lee Miller); David, Roger’s young son (Gulliver McGrath) who insists he sees and speaks to his mother’s ghost; Carolyn, Elizabeth’s moody teenage daughter (Chloe Moretz); Dr. Julia Hoffman, David’s live-in psychiatrist (Helena Bonham Carter), and Willie Loomis, the family’s drunkard groundskeeper (Jackie Earle Haley)–hoping to be a part of the Collins family once again and wanting to help reverse the fallen family fortunes.
Unfortunately, Barnabas is not the only centuries-old resident of Collinsport still hanging around. Angelique (Eva Green), the witch who originally cursed Barnabas with vampirism after he had scorned her affections, has been taking out her grudge against the Collins family by ruining their fishing business and their reputation in Collinsport. With the return of Barnabas she sees one final opportunity to either win his love or destroy him and the Collins family’ forever.
Sound like the craziest, most convoluted soap opera you’ve ever heard of? Of course it does, and that’s part of the point. This WAS a soap-opera: a ’60s era soaper comprised of over 1,200 episodes and all the countless storylines, over-the-top characters, and plot twists that typify the genre. But how do you effectively distill five years and 1,200 episodes worth of that kind of melodrama into a running time of 113 minutes? Not easily.
Like more recent Burton/Depp collaborations — Alice in Wonderland (2010), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) — this film seems to be another labor of love for the two men, as well as the other cast members involved. Depp, in particular, has claimed to be a devotee of the series and to the late Jonathan Frid, the actor who portrayed Barnabas in the original series. He throws himself into mimicking Frid’s posture, manner, and diction. Burton surrounds his favorite star with all the lavish, eye-popping visuals you’ve come to expect from his productions. No, this is not Wonderland, but Burton knows “gothic”, and the early scenes of the film, set in the 18th Century and showing the Collins’ crossing the Atlantic, the building of the colossal castle that will become Collinwood, and Barnabas’s fall–literally–into vampirism, are especially effective and arresting. You buy into Burton’s vision of this part of the past just as much here as you did in “Sleepy Hollow” back in 1999. He’s just VERY good at showing us his imagining of that world.
Where the movie goes off the rails is when the plot flashes-forward to the ’70s, and the film, which is played straight up until that point, suddenly changes tone and becomes a farce populated by caricatures rather than “real” people and montages stuffed with as many “fish out of water” gags as possible. Yes, a merchant prince from the late 1700’s faced with ’70s pop culture would be shocked and bewildered by what he saw around him. We get it after the first few jokes. Three montages later, it just feels forced, like everything else stuffed into this script by Seth Grahame-Smith, the author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Perhaps wishing to pay homage to the original series’s soap opera nature and some of its well-remembered storylines, Smith tries to include as many soap-y trappings into the progression of the film as possible. The result is cinematic clutter: pointless characters who appear for a few moments on screen, then disappear for long stretches; needless subplots that do nothing for the main plot except for draw attention away from it; and twists that come out of nowhere and seem to serve no clear purpose except to throw the audience a curve ball. Add all that to the aforementioned comedic montages and the occasional moments when Barnabas surrenders to his vampirism and attacks someone, and what you get is a movie that can’t decide what it wants to be: stagy, scary, or just plain silly.
If you’re a Burton film fan, you may not care about or even notice the clutter. After all, you’re getting Depp, Bonham Carter in her sixth collaboration with husband Burton, Michelle Pfeiffer in her first Burton film since Batman Returns in 1992, the ever-present Danny Elfman score, and all the gothic visual splendor that the director can muster served to you yet again like your favorite comfort food on a cold, rainy day. And if you’re a fan of the Dark Shadows TV series, you’re getting a return to Collinwood and all your favorite characters, storylines, and melodrama, albeit some of them played for far more laughs than when they were originally conceived. You might even love that it’s a mess.
But if you do not fall into either of those categories, be warned. All of this in a daily television program that produces 40-60 half-hour episodes per season can still make a loony kind of sense, but all of it in a two-hour movie will most likely leave you, as it did me, wondering, “What was the point of that?”
Score: 2.5 out of 5
Starring Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Jackie Earle Haley, Jonny Lee Miller, Chloe Grace Moretz, Bella Heathcote, and directed by Tim Burton.
Running Time: 112 minutes
Rated PG-13 for comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking.