Visually stunning and narratively messy, Dark Shadows is not a terrible movie but it falls far short of how good it could have been.
Based on the 1966-1971 soap opera of the same name, Dark Shadows follows Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), a wealthy heir to a Maine fishing fortune who is turned into a vampire after he spurns the affections of family housekeeper Angelique (Eva Green) who also happens to be a witch. Barnabas is then imprisoned in a locked up coffin and buried in 1752 until he is released by workmen in 1972. After eating all of the workmen, Barnabas returns to his family’s Collinswood estate to find it in shambles and the business in ruin. After meeting his last remaining family members, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller), Carolyn Stoddard (Chloe Moretz), and David Collins (Gulliver McGrath), Barnabas learns that Angelique has survived the two hundred years since he has been imprisoned and has set about destroying his family in every way possible. He also finds the remnants of his family in deep dysfunction with David having to undergo regular therapy sessions with live-in psychiatrist Dr Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) due to issues he has with his mother’s death and his claims that he can talk to her ghost. Roger is completely closed off emotionally to his son and has become a lothario. Carolyn is either hiding a dark secret or is just a typical bitchy teenager. Only Elizabeth seems to really have things together. Barnabas decides he is going to help them put things back together and go to war with Angelique. Oh, also, a governess shows up to work with David named Vicki Winters (Bella Heathcote) who happens to look just like Baranabas’s lost love Josette who Angelique also killed back in 1752. This is pretty much just the set up for the movie.
Dark Shadows really feels like the soap opera it is based on in terms of how much material is thrown at the audience. It feels a lot like an entire season or two is crammed into the film’s 113 minute run time. This is not really a good thing. The movie feels bloated and very uneven and a lot of the various dangling are dropped halfway through the movie with some weird reveals in the third act that have pretty much no set up to lead into it. Entire characters could be easily excised without any damage to the plot and honestly a leaner run time would likely have helped the movie quite a bit. I understand the desire to service the source material but you can’t do with a two hour movie what you can do with over 500 episodes of a TV show. There could be a longer cut of the movie that fills in some of the gaps in storytelling but I would have preferred a shorter, tighter film that could have been worthy of a sequel that could have introduced some of these characters and and given them the time and attention they deserve.
Aside from the bloating issue, the film has a difficult time settling on a particular genre. Comedy, drama and horror have been mixed before and to great effect but here it feels a bit jagged and can be a bit off putting. The general tone is similar to Death Becomes Her with a dose of Addams Family thrown in for good measure but, again, with all the different balls in the air it never really manages to find its equilibrium. Again, a tightening of the plot and characters would have helped to even this out as well.
The comedy hits more than it misses although it mines Baranabas’s being ‘out of time’ a bit more than it needs to. Generally, however, the humor finds its mark and Depp’s performance in particular goes a long way to make it work. His sense of timing and physical humor is spot on and makes up for some wasted performances and overacting from other cast members. Eva Green, in particular, annoyed me pretty badly with her Angelique. It could be that I just hated the character as you are meant to and that she did a great job in that regard but every time she was on screen I was acutely annoyed. Moretz was not given much to do but be generally sullen and anti-social but it felt really one note and got kind of old. Jackie Earle Haley turns in a great performance as Willie Loomis, Collinswood’s groundskeeper and thrall of Barnabas and Jonny Lee Miller does more work with his eyebrows than most actors do with their whole bodies. Pfeiffer has a kind of thankless job as Elizabeth is essentially a straight man trying to keep everything together. Helena Bonham Carter looks terrible as the psychiatrist but is reasonably funny if ultimately useless to the overall plot. The character in the series becomes important because she tries to help cure Barnabas of his condition as well as highlighting his basic goodness and humanity underneath the monster he’s become. Here, she goes through those motions and is ushered out of the plot fairly quickly. The heavy lifting for humanizing Barnabas falls to his relationship with Vickie Winters but even that is forgotten for much of the third act.
Visually, the movie is pretty incredible. Early photos of Depp as Barnabas looked kind of ridiculous but in the movie he looks pretty good. The sets, effects and overall aesthetic are all top notch and are consistent with director Tim Burton’s style and skill. The movie doesn’t really feel much like the old show from a design perspective but that is okay. Burton’s style is distinct and works well enough with the material. The blend of horror and comedy is well suited for this aesthetic.
Conclusion [7.5 out of 10]
Dark Shadows is a distinctly mixed bag that is entertaining and funny but also a narrative mess that doesn’t know where its focus should be. Fans of the original show might balk at some of the changes but they are also the ones who will most appreciate how doggedly the script tries to incorporate all of the material it can from the series. That isn’t to say that it is only for fans of the show. There is fun to be found here but you have to sit through a lot of less interesting material. I had higher hopes for Dark Shadows than what I got but it was still a decent movie that is worth checking out for fans of this kind of material. I wouldn’t recommend paying full price for it though and it is probably better suited for a rental or cable.