I have never watched a single episode of the original series on which Dark Shadows was based. That’s not to say I have no familiarity with the franchise, as I own a dvd copy of the 1990’s revival series that came packaged with a DVD set of another television show that I bought at a discount at Wal-Mart some time ago. That particular series did not seem horrible, but nor was it in any way good enough to make any sort of impression. I am informed by my sources on the internets that the original series is far more beloved, because of its groundbreaking introduction of genre elements into the mainstream soap opera trappings of television as well as the spectacularly bad effects that made early Doctor Who episodes look like Michael Bay set pieces.
Why then did I bother to see this film adaptation when Burton’s last outing, Alice in Wonderland was so generic and blah that I felt the director had lost all of his creative spark? Because I sure as hell did not want to sit through Battleship. This film was at its very core the lesser of two evils. Tim Burton should thank his lucky stars for that. Because while the trailer for this was abysmal, it still looked like it would drain less of my soul than Peter Berg’s overly bloated and poorly conceived board game movie. That may set the bar incredibly low, but I’m not looking to be overly compassionate here. This is as middle of the road a movie as you can get.
The first ten minutes of the film, where we are introduced to a young Barnabas Collins transplanted from England to the Atlantic northeast of America, works well as a gothic tragedy that feels well within classic Burton’s wheelhouse. It is overblown and melodramatic in a way that seems consistent with everything I’ve come to associate with Dark Shadows in its previous incarnations. In fact, this tone is somewhat well maintained until the instant that Barnabas is unearthed in 1972, where the tone shifts and the film goes off the rails. The shift from tragic melodrama to quirky comedy is so abrupt that it is almost physically shaking. I can say with absolute certainty that this film would have been far more effective if it had played the bombast straight faced and not tried so hard to constantly be winking at the audience and demanding that they acknowledge how clever the writing is. If Seth Grahame-Smith’s screenplay were anywhere near as witty as the film thinks it is it would be one amazing ride. As it stands, it’s the very definition of a shiny well-produced mess. The costume work, the visual direction and the cinematography are all top notch. I will give it that much credit, as I seem to do with everything Burton does. But there is no cohesion to the story and it seems to bounce everywhere with regard to what it wants to be. Once it goes all gonzo-quirky, the moments where we are expected to accept moments of horror with a straight face fall flat and the film goes down with them.
Johnny Depp never fully melds into the role and its hard not to see him as we’ve come to know him. He overshadows the character almost entirely. On the other hand, newcomer Bella Heathcote does well as the doe-eyed love interest and Eva Green masterfully chews the scenery, as she seems to get what sort of movie she is in. Helena Bonham-Carter is just as distracting as Depp and the rest of the cast seems to simply exist. Johnny Lee Miller is especially passive and exits the film in a manner that seems like he suddenly remembered he had something more important to do elsewhere and considering that he’s starring in that ill-advised American take on Sherlock with Lucy Liu, that should give you some perspective on how badly he must have wanted the hell out of this picture.
So it’s a mess. It has some moments that work, but more of them don’t and the final product is just sort of a waste of time. I think the script needed to be more consistent in every department and I think the film could have worked better had the cast been people who Burton hasn’t essentially claimed as his own little puppets. I want the Burton who made Ed Wood and Beetlejuice back. I want something impressive. I know he can do it and that’s why films like these are so damn depressing.
Anyhow, here’s some hot pictures of Eva Green to cheer you up.