Movie Review: Dark Shadows
By Matthew Huntley
May 17, 2012
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.