The film is not a colossal failure, as some had predicted, but it’s hardly indicative of Burton or Depp’s talent.
When moviegoers (and classic TV lovers) first heard that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp would be reuniting yet again for a “reboot” of the 1960s gothic soap opera, Dark Shadows, the response was mixed. Despite the pair of fan-favorite filmmakers, many Dark Shadows faithful protested the film for fear it would (stop me if you’ve heard this before) ruin their childhood (or, at the very least, undercut fond memories of the original show) – or rely too heavily on the, now trademark (and for some, tired) Burton/Depp schtick.
On the other hand, plenty of movie-lovers were, nonetheless, excited for the project – as it could offer a fitting “return to (gothic) form” for Burton.
Now that the film is out, we can safely say that Dark Shadows is hardly a mindless pillaging of the cult-classic source material – but the movie isn’t likely to be one of Burton’s more celebrated works either. Instead, it’s a competent film that once again relies almost entirely on an enjoyable (but not particularly fresh) performance from Depp as leading-vampire Barnabas Collins (originally portrayed by the late Jonathan Frid). Discerning viewers will notice that nearly all of the other characters and plot points take a back seat to Depp-centric comedy, but for plenty of moviegoers that may not be a deal breaker.
As mentioned, Dark Shadows is loosely based on the classic television series of the same name that ran from 1966 to 1971. In this film version, Barnabas Collins has a fling with his obsessive maidservant, Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), back in the 18th century – but when he pledges his love to another, Josette DuPres (Bella Heathcote), Angelique kills his beloved and curses him to eternal life without her, as a vampire, before rallying the townsfolk of Collinsport to bury the blood-sucker alive. 200 years later Barnabas is unearthed – only to find that his illustrious family name has, in the mean time, been tarnished by “Angie” – who has not aged a day. In an effort to take back what is rightfully his, Barnabas uses charm and a little bit of hypnotism to restore the Collins family, as well as Collinwood Manor itself, to former glory – not to mention get back at Angelique for the whole killing his fiance/curse/buried-alive thing.
The film, as evidenced by our synopsis, leaves most of the side characters in varying degrees of underdevelopment. The basic archetypes are set up out of the gate (upon the return of Barnabas) but no one is developed beyond that point: Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) is the matriarch of Collinwood Manor – attempting to hold on to what little the family has left, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), brother to Elizabeth, ignores his son in favor of his own desires, David (Gulliver McGrath), the aforementioned son, is an odd but lovable kid who is adamant that his drowned mother still talks to him, and Carolyn (Chloë Moretz), Elizabeth’s daughter, is a typical fifteen year old – obsessed with celebrity crushes and resentful of the attention David gets around the manor. Along for the ride is Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley), a lovable but creepy groundskeeper, and Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) as David’s underachieving psychiatrist.
Beyond these initial descriptions, none of the characters offer anything more than sounding boards for Depp’s Barnabas antics. Each one is given a bit of Burton’s trademark oddball style and flare but, while the supporting cast does an adequate job with their respective roles, there’s a lot of wasted potential (especially with Pfeiffer and Moretz in the frame) – not to mention a number of unearned developments in the final act. Instead, the movie spends the majority of the time on Depp’s fish-out-of-water gimmick coupled with the bizarre Angelique lust/hate relationship. Depp brings his usual charm as well as subtle nuances to the character (making him likable even though he’s still a murderous monster) – and, for the most part, Green succeeds as a detestable antagonist. However, there’s nothing fresh or particularly interesting about their dynamic – as both are going through motions we’ve seen countless times before in similar revenge/redemption stories.
That said, not everything is merely a rehash (either in terms of character or core subject matter), as for portions of the film, Burton makes excellent use of the 1960s timeframe – especially when it collides with the overarching “gothic” cinematography. Again, even these intriguing juxtapositions are heavily reliant on Depp’s portrayal of Barnabas, but they definitely add a charm and sense of humor (not to mention visual flare) to the film – one that would, in the hands of a different director, have probably not been explored.
The result is a thin but mildly entertaining film that doesn’t quite find the coveted reboot sweet spot: honoring the source material while also presenting a compelling reimagining for modern audiences. By the end of the film Burton attempts to shoe-horn in some last minute tethers to the source material that will be familiar to fans of the classic series. Unfortunately, the nods will likely be distracting for non-fans, and at this point, too little-too late for even the Dark Shadows faithful. Instead, Dark Shadows comes across as yet another Depp/Burton riff on an established property that, like Alice and Wonderland as well as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory before it, presents an entertaining enough platform for the actor and some intriguing visuals from the director – all while failing to present a memorable storyline or intriguing non-Depp characters.
While Dark Shadows may please the Burton and Depp fanbase, which still represent a significant chunk of the moviegoing public (and who never seem to tire of the pairing), for less-invested viewers Dark Shadows is likely to offer a number of chuckle-worthy moments and a few slick visuals – coupled with a lot of uneven character development and a dull moment-to-moment narrative progression that, at times, suffers from a lot of familiar story beats. The film is not a colossal failure, as some had predicted, but it’s hardly indicative of Burton or Depp’s talent, serving as yet another indication that the pair could stand to step outside their collective me + you = cinematic magic mindsets – since Ichabod Crane, Willy Wonka, Sweeney Todd, The Mad Hatter, and Barnabas Collins are, otherwise, starting to blur together.
If you’re still on the fence about Dark Shadows, check out the trailer below:
For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant team check out our Dark Shadows episode of the SR Underground podcast.
Let us know what you thought of the film in the comment section.
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Dark Shadows is rated PG-13 for comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking. Now playing in theaters.