Directed by: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Jackie Earle Haley, Chloe Moretz, Jonny Lee Miller
Rated: PG-13 for comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking
Once upon a time, there was a soap opera called “Dark Shadows.” I grew up hearing about it, but never saw it myself. I caught the short-lived revival starring Ben Cross, but found it uninspired. Now Tim Burton brings us a film based on the original, with a fabulous cast led by Johnny Depp. Given the enormous popularity of the original series and of Johnny Depp, it should be a slam dunk — but it’s hamstrung by a dreadfully inconsistent script. Good acting and gorgeous visuals can overcome a lot, but not a five-minute-long “balls” joke.
We learn the history of poor, tormented Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) in an extended prologue — his family moves to the US in the 1700s and creates a fishing empire, he rejects the amorous intentions of a family servant, the servant turns out to be a witch who curses him to be a vampire, he winds up imprisoned and buried. In 1973, he’s released and finds his once-wealthy family has been driven nearly to bankruptcy by the onetime servant, Angelique (Eva Green). The family, consisting of mother Liz (Michelle Pfeiffer), daughter Carolyn (Chloe Moretz), uncle Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), and young cousin David (Gulliver), live in the rundown family mansion and have retained the services of a psychiatrist (Helena Bonham Carter) and a governess (Bella Heathcote) in addition to their two incompetent servants.
Barnabas is determined to make the family great again. Angelique, tired of being the only powerful immortal in town, is determined to make him her partner in business and in bed — even if that requires threatening him and his family. Add in the psychiatrist’s desire to understand Barnabas and some mysterious supernatural happenings around the children, and you have what should be a potent recipe for a good film.
Unfortunately, “Dark Shadows” never quite strikes the right tone. It has moments of camp, but also moments of seriousness; it has moments of genuine horror and pathos, and then there is the aforementioned “balls” joke, which is only one of a number of very juvenile and silly attempts at humor. Too much is made of Barnabas’ “fish out of water” status, with constant, eyeroll-inspiring jokes about his unfamiliarity with the trappings of the 70s and modern social mores.
It’s a shame, really, because everything else about the film is delightful. The special effects are impressive (except where they are clearly overdone on purpose, like with Depp’s makeup and fake pointy-ears). Burton excels at creating gorgeous, weird settings, and Collinsport is no exception. Depp and the rest of the cast look like they are enjoying themselves. There’s even a cameo from horror legend Christopher Lee to enjoy. But it’s not enough.
“Dark Shadows” isn’t irredeemably bad, but it’s difficult to watch it knowing what could have been. It’s a wasted opportunity which will likely please neither the young Depp fangirls nor the older generation who were fans of the original.