Dark Shadows could rightly be described as a comedy, a drama, a horror movie and a thriller. And yet, given all these identifiers, it lacks a clear identity. It’s a mix of genres blended into one nonsensical movie. How, exactly, did director Tim Burton want us to perceive it? Obviously he wanted it to work on all levels, but which one did he want it to work on first? Had he answered that question, he might have brought some much needed direction to the unresolved screenplay and made a working picture out of what’s essentially a mess.
Movie Review: Dark Shadows
By Matthew Huntley
May 17, 2012
The movie is based on the cult 1960s soap opera and stars Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins, son of wealthy Liverpudians who immigrate to America in 1760 and start a fishing empire on the coast of Maine and build a town called Collinsport. As a philandering teenager, Barnabas breaks the heart of one of the family’s live-in servants, Angelique (Eva Green), who happens to be a witch. She exacts revenge by killing Barnabas’ parents and placing a spell on his one true love, Josette, who throws herself off a cliff. When Barnabas tries to do the same, he discovers Angelique has turned him into a vampire and the townspeople subsequently confine him to a coffin for the next 200 years.
Flash forward to 1972, where Collinwood Manor, the Collins’ dilapidating mansion, is now occupied by Barnabas’ distant relatives and dipsomaniacal staff. Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a single mother to her rebellious teenager daughter, Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz); Roger (Jonny Lee Miller) is Elizabeth’s brother and father to young David (Gulliver McGrath), who goes around dressing up in sheets; Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) is David’s live-in psychiatrist with loud orange hair who’s been trying to determine whether the little boy is crazy for talking to his dead mother; and Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley) is the uncouth groundskeeper who’s easily susceptible to hypnosis.
We’re introduced to this lowly and miserable group when a young woman named Maggie (Bella Heathcote), who looks uncannily like Barnabas’ long lost Josette, applies for the governess position. Coincidentally, she arrives the same day Barnabas is awakened by an unsuspecting construction crew. When they unearth his coffin, he murders them, albeit apologetically (“I’m so sorry, but you have no idea how thirsty I am”) and makes his way back to his beloved mansion. Along the way, he speaks out loud as if he’s delivering a Shakespearian soliloquy and is amazed by such things as McDonald’s, running vehicles and a two-lane road. After he greets the children, he reveals himself to Elizabeth and they agree to keep his history and true identity a secret. His primary ambition is to restore the family business to its former glory and take back Collinsport from the sly Angelique, who has started a fishing company of her own and acts like queen of the town. She still loves Barnabas and wants to be business partners as well as lovers, but he once again dismisses her affection in favor of Maggie and family honor.
When Dark Shadows is trying to be one type of movie or a combination of many, it’s surprisingly dull and lackluster. I use the word “surprisingly” because the collaboration of Johnny Depp and Tim Burton is usually anything but dull and lackluster. The two have worked together as actor and director on at least seven films, and while the movies haven’t always hit their marks, they’ve at least been interesting. But this time the duo’s talents aren’t enough to ignite Seth Grahame-Smith’s lackadaisical screenplay, which, as a film, results in a lot of dead time (I’m afraid this isn’t a selling point despite Barnabas being a vampire).
For instance, during the scene in which Barnabas explains to Elizabeth his intentions and reveals the family’s hidden fortune, she holds a knife behind her back thinking she might have to stab him. The way this scene unfolds feels off. It should have been cut faster and given more energy. I actually grew tired from listening to the dialogue and the way it constantly cuts back to the knife in Elizabeth’s hand. There was something about it that just made it drag.
The same goes for the scenes where Barnabas acclimates to his new time period. They come off as stale and lame when they should be comical. For example, to show the townspeople the Collins are once again a force to be reckoned with, he decides to host a ball, and so we get a series of one-liners with the word “balls” being overused. Barnabas is of course unfamiliar with the association of “balls” to testicles, a joke that might have been amusing had it been told subtly, but the script beats us over the head with it. Other moments were funnier, like Barnabas trying to find a comfortable sleeping position; or him attacking the TV when The Carpenters are on TV singing “Top of the World” and he says, “Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!” But most of the humor feels recycled from other fish-out-of-water stories (Austin Powers) and falls flat.
Above all, the movie’s plot has too many unanswered questions. I walked away wondering whether Maggie was a supernatural extension of Josette. In a flashback, we learn she used to talk to the ghost of Barnabas’ lover, but how do you explain Maggie and Josette looking like each other? And after Barnabas discovers a secret about Roger, what are we to gather from it? Is Roger really David’s father? Speaking of fathers, where’s Carolyn’s? During a scene in which Alice Cooper performs as the musical guest, Carolyn hints about her father’s whereabouts and there’s an exchange between her and Elizabeth, but the movie doesn’t take it beyond that. And why does the ghost of David’s mother have the power that she does? Or why is Angelique vulnerable the way she is? All these questions give the movie a feeling of disjointedness and frustration. It introduces all these random ideas and developments without explaining them in the context of its own world.
Another thing was the depiction of the 1970s itself, which is the most archetypal of that era. From the pop culture references, to the posters and memorabilia hanging up in Carolyn’s room, to the music selections in between scenes, it all felt too typical of that decade, right down to a group of hippies. This gave the movie a sitcomish quality that it should have strived to rise above.
The trailer for Dark Shadows made it look like a quirky and darkly funny experience, and it is that, but at too few points. It’s mostly perplexing and unimaginative. Depp is his usual droll and soft self, and if there were any reasons to see it, they would be his facial expressions, reaction shots and line deliveries. Depp we’re on board with, but the filmmakers are unable to turn the overstuffed narrative into something we care about or respond to. We grow weary instead, which is something we don’t expect given the caliber of talent in front of and behind the camera.