As only a casual witness to the 1966 low budget television series Dark Shadows, I was neither excited nor possessive when collaborators Johnny Depp and Tim Burton announced plans to resurrect the series into a full length feature film. After all, I could barely remember what the original Barnabas Collins looked like as played by Jonathan Frid for 594 individual episodes. And although I have enjoyed the majority of Depp and Burton efforts, I did think their last few efforts (namely Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland) were just average entries in a padded resume. So you could say that I went into the 2012 edition of Dark Shadows without expectations or a hardened stance on the sanctity of the Dan Curtis created series that ran from 1966 through 1971.
Still, with my disclaimer affirmed as my safety net, I was still a tad disappointed when the first trailer for Burton’s Dark Shadows suggested that the film would be of the comedic nature rather than a dark and fantastical vampire film.
Dark Shadows opens in the year 1752 where we meet a young Barnabas Collins that sets sail from Liverpool, England to America where his family settles and develops a fishing town named Collinsport in east coast Maine. The family is rich and respected, but when Barnabas Collins breaks the heart of Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) who worked within Collinwood Manor, Angelique curses Barnabas into a vampire and kills his true love before entrapping Barnabas in an underground tomb.
Fast forward to 1972 and a construction team unearths and ultimately frees the blood thirsty Barnabas. Immediately, Barnabas is amid surroundings that are alien to him – illuminated McDonald’s signs, motor vehicles, electrical power. Barnabas travels back to Collinswood, Manor where his distant relatives now reside. Elizabeth Collins (Michelle Pfeiffer), father figure Roger (Jonny Lee Miller) and children Carolyn (Chloe Moretz) and David (Gulliver McGrath) have taken residence in the Collins castle and share the estate with hired help Willie (Jackie Earle Haley) and psychiatrist Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter).
As the film’s trailers suggest, Dark Shadows is a fish-out-of-water story with Depp’s Collins dealing with the world that is now centuries more developed than when he was entombed. Think Crocodile Dundee with Vampires. Things get a tad more complicated when Angelique Bouchard appears at Collinswood and appears to still hold a grudge for Barnabas’ shunning of love twice centuries earlier. Angelique has started her own fishing cannery in town and has monopolized the fishing town putting the Collins’ into near bankruptcy. The strained relationship between Barnabas and Angelique and Barnabas’ continued acceptance of the modern world will be the roots of Seth Grahame-Smith’s screenplay.
As aforementioned, Depp and Burton have been consistent collaborators having commenced their relationship in 1990 with the adorable Edward Scissorhands. Since then, there has been a mix of serviceable films (Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeny Todd, Corpse Bride, Alice in Wonderland) that have been big on style and a little loose on substance. Unfortunately, Dark Shadows falls into the latter’s mix and may in fact be their weakest collaboration yet.
The biggest obstacle facing Dark Shadows is that it is simply boring. None of the characters are particularly well drafted and the most interesting of them all (Chloe Moretz’s Carolyn) gets far too little screen time to make a big impact. The jokes are scattered and miss twice as much as they bullseye and an appearance by rock legend Alice Cooper is milked for more than what it’s worth.
Depp is funny at parts, but by the mid-point of the film, his awkwardness has worn thin and the story which is convoluted with a new hired Governess, a dead mother and ghosts that wander through the house is just….silly.
This all makes for a toss-away film and one that is easily the weakest of the Depp/Burton convergences (move over Willy Wonka!). Burton’s visuals are for the most part muted (this will be the first time you may watch a Burton movie and not THINK you are watching a Burton movie) and even Danny Elfman’s score is forgettable if even noticed at all.
Sorry Barnabas. But maybe you should have stayed in your coffin just a few centuries more.