There’s a good chance that hardcore followers of the TV horror/soap opera series Dark Shadows may be somewhat upset with director Tim Burton and what he’s done to their beloved show. Burton has aimed more for comedy than anything else – which is actually the saving grace of the film – but that’s probably not what original fans are looking for.
It’s 1752 and during a surprisingly lengthy introduction – the only portion of the film that appears to take the proceedings seriously – we learn how Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) became a vampire and how a jealous, jilted witch (Eva Green) condemns Barnabas to a living/dead hell by trapping him in a coffin, wrapped in chains and buried deep enough that no one should ever find him… well, at least for a couple of hundred years.
Cut to 1972. Construction workers unearth the coffin, open the lid and find themselves on the vampire’s menu. It’s not that Barnabas bares any malice towards the workers, it’s just that he’s been underground for so long, and after two hundred years he’s really hungry.
The fish-out-of-water approach to having Barnabas return to his home town of Collinsport, Maine in 1972 is quite inspired. Adjusting to a modern time from someone out of the eighteenth century is always fun, and Johnny Depp’s straight-laced reaction to many modern conveniences produces moments of some very funny comedy, but the problem is with the story and characters. There appears to be too many people connected to the Collins family who have little or no purpose. Johnny Lee Miller’s Roger Collins has nothing much to do and is removed from the story about half way through, and as much as I enjoy Chloe Grace Moretz – remember Hit Girl in Kick Ass? – her character turns into a freaky something near the end that appears to happen for no other reason other than the effects look good.
As you might expect, Tim Burton’s design is glorious to view. The opening shots alone are worth the price of admission – it’s truly amazing what CGI can do and how casually such eye-popping sights are now treated – but there comes a point where you start to get the feeling that things are not really working. It’s as if everyone and everything is overstaying its welcome. Director Burton and screenwriter Dan Curtis don’t appear to know how to end the film. They have a great setup and some very funny humor that sets the tone, but no final act, so they opt for the regular, explosive, special effects climax between the villainous witch and Barnabas, and it does nothing. How many more times are we going to see wizards or warlocks, or whatever, angrily pointing fingers at each other, firing electronic bolts of lightning across the screen in lieu of something a little more creative? In Dark Shadows the final act feels reminiscent of many things seen before. The 1992 comedy Death Becomes Her springs to mind.
Depp is certainly engaging. When he meets rock singer Alice Cooper for the first time, expecting to see someone of a different gender, Depp exclaims, “That is the ugliest woman I have ever seen!”
Why the film takes place in 1972 I’m not entirely sure, though the TV series ended in 1971, so unless I missed the memo I’m guessing this is another kind of homage to the original work by having Barnabas appear back again one year later. Whatever the reason, at the very least it allows for some very funny and creative use of early seventies pop/rock hits on the soundtrack. During a montage as we see Barnabas adjusting to modern seventies life we hear The Carpenters’ Top of the World, and during a violent love making session between Barnabas and the jealous witch that practically destroys every object in the room we hear Barry White’s You’re the First, The Last, My Everything. When you think of what we’re watching, who the characters are and their relationship to each other, that’s funny.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 113 minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)