A film review by Craig J. Koban May 21, 2012


2012, PG-13, 112 mins.


Barnabas: Johnny Depp / Elizabeth: Michelle Pfeiffer / Dr. Hoffman: Helena Bonham Carter / Angelique: Eva Green / Roger: Jonny Lee Miller / Carolyn: Chloe Grace Moretz

Directed by Tim Burton / Written by Seth Grahame-Smith, based on the television series created by Dan Curtis

Tim Burton’s DARK SHADOWS is a confluence of many genres: it’s a gothic romance, a period melodrama, a Hammer-era horror flick, a tongue-in-cheek camp comedy, a satirical Nixon-era travelogue picture, and, yes, a vampire tale.  The film, maybe as a direct result, comes off as a handsomely mounted and crafted, but exasperatingly hit or miss affair in terms of its overall tonal cohesiveness.  I think that Burton’s frequent lead actor, Johnny Depp (this is the eighth time they have collaborated together) understands and embraces the sheer comic absurdity of DARK SHADOWS, but I never gained the impression that Burton was attentive of what type of film he was making.  This movie looks great, but lacks a consistent rhythmic tenor.   

Adapting DARK SHADOWS was, no doubt, no easy task for Depp and Burton (the former who served as one of its producers and has always professed to it being a lifelong pet project).  The film is based on the Dan Curtis created 1966-1971 gothic soap opera of the same name that ran for an unprecedented 1225 episodes, which is more episodes that just about any other sci-fi/fantasy TV show in history.  The show has long since developed a cult following, so the process of transplanting a show that had such a long tenure on the small screen on to the big screen within a two-hour running time is daunting, to say the least.  Perhaps this is why Burton’s massively scaled and budgeted DARK SHADOWS comes off as a film of lavish pomp and circumstance without much overall story and thematic coherence.

The central premise of this silver screen treatment of the show is, at face value, kind of hilarious.  A 200-year-old vampire, long since buried in the late 1700’s, awakens from his six feet under prison cell and finds himself in the lava lamped, bellbottomed, and hippie-centric world of the early 1970’s.   The bloodsucker in question was not always a ravenous and nocturnal creature.  Born in the 18th Century fishing village of Collinsport, Maine, the adult Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) develops a romantic fling with the beautiful Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), but what he does not know is that she's actually a powerful witch with a serious axe to grind when Barnabas royally dumps her so he can be with the true love of his life.  Angelique lashes out and kills Barnabas' wife-to-be, casts a spell on him and turns him into a vampire.  To make matters worse, she turns the village against Barnabas; they capture him, chain him up, place him in a coffin, and bury him for what will seem like an awfully long dirt nap. 

The film then flash-forwards to 1972 as a young governess, Victoria Winters (the fair skinned beauty Bella Heathcote) arrives at a mansion on the outskirts of Collinsport to help work with a troubled young boy who sees ghosts.  His aunt, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) accepts Victoria in to join her odd and eclectic family unit, made up of the boy’s sister Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), his father, Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller) and his shrink, Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter).   Soon after Victoria comes to the castle, Barnabas makes a fateful appearance, seeing as he has escaped his tomb that he was placed in nearly two centuries ago and wishes to restore the honor and legacy of his once great family. 



Being a vampire - and keeping it a secret from everyone except Elizabeth - while acclimatizing himself to a whole new century is the first set of challenges that Barnabas faces, the second of which is gaining some acceptance from his new “family”, so to speak.  His most crucial challenge comes on the business front.  The Collins clan has a failing fishing business that is being crushed by the town’s most popular fishing enterprise, which is being run with a ruthless Capitalist edge by, yup, the very same witch that cursed poor ol’ Barnabas so many years ago.  It’s one thing for Barnabas to deal with a jaded lover from the very distant past, but he now has to find a way to turn away her advances in the present while securing his family's fortunes.  Then there is the issue of the governess, who seems like a dead ringer for Barnabas’ old flame back in the 1770’s… 

I liked the laughably incongruent elements of Barnabas’ gentleman vampire juxtaposed over a time period that’s positively foreign to him.  Everyone in 1972 sees Barnabas – with his aristocratic long cloak and ascot, wolf’s head cane, mannered formality, bone white skin, sullen eyes, and semi-Emo hairstyle – as an out-of-touch and archaic weirdo, whereas everything the befuddled Barnabas comes in contact with just seems plain weird to him.  He observes the 70’s era objects with a puzzlement mixed with fascination (his reactions to the golden arches of McDonald’s or macramé plant holders or the board game Operation are unmitigated hoots).  He seems perplexed, for example, that the 15-year-old Carolyn has not made better use of her "ample child bearing hips" and found herself a husband.  He appears even more mystified with the sight of Alice Copper – yes, that one – who shows up late in the film during a party, during which the incredulous vamp calls him  the ugliest woman he has ever seen. 

Depp, of course, impeccably knows how to bring the requisite balance of offbeat strangeness, ghoulish freakiness, and amusing mischievousness to Barnabas.  Neither camping it up to egregious levels nor playing him so seriously that he comes off as an off-putting downer, Depp makes Barnabas both a courtly tempered and endearing family man that just happens to be a malicious killer (remember, he does need blood to survive).  He’s a tortured soul that knows he’s a damned member of the undead, but has a disarming manner of being polite at just about any moment with his long-winded and regal enunciations.  Depp seems equal to the task of playing up to the character's macabre hilarity, as is the case during one darkly droll scene where he partakes in a fireside discussion with some local hippies and dishes out far-out platitudes on love and commitment: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” he graciously inflects, “but it’s with sincere regret that I must now kill you all.” 

The only other performer that seems in on the joke is Eva Green, who has such an unmistakably sultry allure that knows how to use her overt sexuality and raspy voiced incantations to vamp it up to sinfully enjoyable levels.  The rest of the cast, though, seems a bit lost in the shuffle, either having to deal with largely undeveloped characters or desperately trying to find a way to keep up with Depp and Green’s morbid eccentricities.  More often that not, the script feels bogged down with too many characters vying for attention and screen time.  A subplot involving Victoria – whom is introduced early in the film as a central figure of importance – is kind of hopelessly lost and/or forgotten through the remainder of the narrative.  She is reintroduced later – and conveniently – as the third party in a tenuous love triangle involving herself, Barnabas, and Angelique that’s never satisfyingly developed. 

Predictably, DARK SHADOWS is every much a plentiful and luxurious feast for the eyes and imagination as anything Burton has committed to the screen.  Yet, the director has done so very many films in the past with an ominous, gloomy, and gothic sensibility (EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, BATMAN, SLEEPY HOLLOW, and SWEENEY TODD, just name a few) that perhaps it's time for him to explore new visual and thematic territory.  Beyond being visually strapping and having an unsurprisingly strong and eminently watchable Depp at the helm, there’s not much more really going on during this resurrected cult TV show turned film.  DARK SHADOWS is too often like a decadent costume ball – or make that "happening" – without much of a singular identity.  There’s simply just too much happening here. 

  H O M E