Johnny Depp and director Tim Burton are perfect for each other. When they collaborate (Dark Shadows is their eighth film together) you know that nothing is off the table. Nothing is too bizarre, too over-the-top, or too… just weird.
They’ve offered up twisted versions of stories everyone knows (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sleepy Hollow, Alice in Wonderland) and also less-popular tales (Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd), so imagine their delight when they discovered their mutual fascination with Dan Curtis’ 1966-1971 campy, supernatural-themed soap opera Dark Shadows.
If only they had found a screenwriter who shared in their admiration. Depp and Burton both do their part to successfully transition Dark Shadows to modern-day audiences, and they almost pull it off, but for the all-over-the-place screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). Just like that, what could have been yet another fun Depp-Burton collaboration instead fizzles.
Depp is Barnabas Collins, a 200-year-old vampire cursed to his condition by the evil witch Angelique (Eva Green), whose ‘if-I-can’t-have-him-no-one-will’ obsession dooms him to an eternity of misery. When he’s accidentally unearthed in 1972, he returns to his pre-vampire family business (fishing) and his family’s old homestead (Collinwood), now occupied by a present-day menagerie of relatives and odd things, like televisions.
Barnabas convinces matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) to return the company to its former glory, particularly when he hears that Angelique is not only still around but running the competition. And, oh yes, she is still psychotically obsessed with Barnabas.
There are a lot of other subplots, too, including Elizabeth raising her very-adolescent daughter Carolyn (Chloë Moretz), hiring a governess (Bella Heathcote) for her oddball nephew David (Gulliver McGrath), and keeping an eye on David’s in-house therapist Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), but they’re collectively given so little attention that Dark Shadows becomes a mess of a cross-genre mash-up.
The screenplay includes all manner of comedy, action/suspense, and gothic horror; unfortunately, it does none of them particularly well. Sure, the prospect of condensing 1,200 episodes into 120 minutes is daunting, but apparently Grahame-Smith decided to throw in as much stuff as he could, just to see what stuck. The result is a haphazard story that builds to an overblown and underthought conclusion.
It’s a shame, because Burton (as usual) creates a beautiful, twisted world full of his trademark visuals and some pretty snazzy effects, and he’s able to keep things moving along pretty well. He also gets top-shelf work from his cast– most notably from Pfeiffer, Bonham Carter, and Jackie Earle Haley as the oddball handyman.
If not for Depp, Green would have stolen the show; her vampy, whack-a-doodle performance helps us forget her lackluster turn as Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale (if we hadn’t forgotten it already). Dark Shadows is Depp’s baby, though, and it’s obvious from the get-go. He plays Barnabas with clear reverence for Jonathan Frid’s original portrayal, wisely reining in any thoughts he may have had to play things over the top. (And fans of the original series will be tickled to see Frid and former co-stars Kathryn Leigh Scott, Lara Parker, and David Selby in a too-quick cameo as guests at the Collins’ family ball.)
In the end, Dark Shadows is perfectly fine, buoyed by one of the more successful modern day movie partnerships. But it could have been a lot more. Next time Depp and Burton hit the road together, they’ll hopefully have a better screenplay along for the ride.