It was probably inevitable – an old Gothic series, a genius filmmaker who specializes in Goth, an extremely talented writer with a penchant for edgy humor, and a cast that can make or break a genre flick. And guess what – Dark Shadows begins as a deliciously pulpy throwback to horror comedy, and ends as a monster movie of stunning disappointment. All one is left to do is file Dark Shadows and Alice in Wonderland in the mediocre Tim Burton adaptation drawer.
Based on the 60’s soap opera about a family of supernatural weirdos, Dark Shadows feels like just the thing that Burton should make. The film tries to emulate the unintentional hilarity and whacky nature of the series, but the problem is that it isn’t silly and goofy enough. A film can survive bad acting with a good story or terrible writing with great acting, but Dark Shadows has neither advantage. Burton’s film loses its way an hour in, once the ancient-vampire-in-the-modern-world plot turns into sappy rom-com. Somewhere between Burton’s film and the screenplay by Seth Grahame Smith, both character and intent went to the dogs, leaving a smudge of oversentimental vampire schlock that plays like a dignified version of Twilight.
The story and characters are passably serviceable, but have too little ingenuity to have any impact. Here we have a huge mansion occupied by the famous Collins family circa 1972 – the matron Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her teen daughter (Chloe Moretz), her smarmy brother (Jonny Lee Miller), his son (Gulliver McGrath), a family doctor (Helena Bonham Carter) and a governess (Bella Heathcote). Along comes Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), a vampire who had been cursed by a spurned witch (Eva Green) and imprisoned in a grave for over two hundred years. Barnabas decides to restore the family’s tarnished name, but things don’t exactly go according to plan when the witch shows up as well. Burton walks the fine line between homage and crazy fanboyism, but fails to keep things interesting. Add to that the tone that keeps shifting from campy to saccharine to pulpy, leading up to a clumsy CGI-filled climax with the tease of a sequel.
There are a couple of laugh out loud moments, one of which involves a hilarious sex scene between Barnabas and the witch. The production design and Bruno Debonell’s cinematography are incredible as expected – nearly every frame is a work of art. But it’s hard to swallow the fact that so many talented people can make a mess of things, because the few moments of the quirky humor aside, there's very little of real entertainment worth recalling. Depp delivers a strangely insipid performance as the tragic vampire who apologizes before sucking humans dry; Eva Green seems lobotomized and not evil or feisty enough – Charlize Theron would’ve truly killed in this role; Michelle Pfeffer proves once and for all that she has lost all traces of likability, Helena Bonham Carter (saddled with an awful wig) manages a few mild chuckles before her dispatch. Moretz and Jackie Earle Haley are wasted in their minuscule parts, while Heathcote is the template Burton heroine with very wide eyes and an eggshell face.
Dark Shadows is proof enough that there's never an entertainment guarantee whenever Depp and Burton collaborate. The film won’t rank among the worst of the year - slick visuals and a few laughs do count for something - but it’d most certainly crop up in the year end lists of most disappointing movies.
(First published in MiD Day)