The Good: Decent plot, Moments of character
The Bad: Tries to service too many characters/plotlines, Nothing stellar on the acting front, Promotions spoiled almost all of the humor.
The Basics: Dark Shadows is resurrected by Tim Burton as a very mediocre horror/comedy that satisfies on neither front.
Dark Shadows is, admittedly, a tough franchise to take over. The campy mid-1960s-early 1970s horror soap opera has a cult following earned by being highly original at the time it made its debut. But the show was a soap opera and, as such, went through several incarnations and a whole slew of characters. Any attempt to resurrect Dark Shadows ran the danger of offending the fanbase that would be predisposed to go see such a film and isolating the general public who might be wary of a horror soap opera. So, fundamentally, Tim Burton seems to be doing all he can to balance the conflicting potential audiences with the new film Dark Shadows. What we are forced to acknowledge with Dark Shadows, though, is that not every balancing act is successful.
Dark Shadows is presented by Tim Burton as an inconsistent horror-comedy, much like Arachnophobia attempted to innovate over twenty years ago. Unfortunately, Burton’s stacked deck, utilizing his usual players Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Christopher Lee (for a cameo), and trading on the predictable draw of skinny blondes Eva Green, Bella Heathcote, and Chloe Grace Moretz fumbles its mixed potential. Dark Shadows is crowded and more often sloppy, with so many underdeveloped aspects that it is hard to imagine many of the fans being pleased by the film.
Before getting into more specifics, it is worth acknowledging that Tim Burton did what he could with the tools given to him. Restarting Dark Shadows as a film franchise is a Herculean task in many ways. Indeed, many of the diehard fans that Burton had to please with the film might be reluctant to acknowledge that Barnabas Collins – arguably the prime reason Dark Shadows survived and had a popular following at all – did not arrive for almost a hundred episodes. The original Dark Shadows listed lazily along for months until it found its legs and was headed in a direction that fans were engaged by. So, doing a pure reboot of Dark Shadows was never really an option, especially as a cinematic endeavor.
Even so, there were a lot of avenues a Dark Shadows reboot could have gone in (one of the most imaginative would have been to start it with the Leviathan plotline or a full film with one of the many Collins family backstory arcs) and Burton went with arguably the most obvious. By focusing on Barnabas Collins, Tim Burton banks on the most popular potential avenue of Dark Shadows and when the film focuses on the struggle between Barnabas and Angelique, the movie is viewable, if not in any way enduringly great. The problem that predominates Burton’s Dark Shadows is that he tries to service all of the characters and the film ends up feeling like a second-rate retread of The Addams Family.
In Colonial America, the Collins family arrives to establish their fishing business. Building an entire town, the Collins family prospers and Collinsport thrives due to their influence. But young Barnabas Collins spurns the wrong woman when he rejects the servant girl Angelique in favor of Josette. Angelique, who is a very powerful witch, kills Barnabas’s parents and uses her magic to have Josette walk off a cliff to die on the rocks below Collinwood. When Barnabas leaps to follow her, Angelique curses him, transforming him into a vampire who cannot die. When that does not bring Barnabas to her, Angelique rallies the townspeople and they bury Barnabas.
Almost two hundred years later, in 1972, the Collins family is in decline, with Elizabeth running the nearly abandoned Collinwood and presiding over the remnants of the family. Roger Collins, a widower, is raising his son David (who sees his mother’s ghost) and Elizabeth hired Victoria Winters to act as nanny and tutor. Also occupying Collinwood are Elizabeth’s daughter Carolyn, the psychotherapist Dr. Julia Hoffman, and the groundskeeper, Willie Loomis. When a dig unearths Barnabas, the vampire feeds and returns to Collinwood where he makes himself known to Elizabeth.
Elizabeth allies herself with Barnabas on the hope that his plans to revitalize the family business will work. But almost immediately, Angelique – who has survived and been bleeding the Collins family business dry as their main competitor – learns of Barnabas’s return and she sets out to win him over. Failing to lure him away from his interest in Victoria, who appears to be Josette resurrected, Angelique sets out to destroy the Collins family once and for all.
Right off the bat, it is worth noting that Dark Shadows as a comedy reinvention of the campy soap opera original is almost entirely ruined by the promotional campaign surrounding the movie. Tim Burton did not have a bad idea when he tried to transform something that was arguably hokey into a comedy, but the advertisements spoiled almost all of the humor by revealing most of the film’s jokes! The result is that those who have seen the trailers have seen most of the comedy, are unsurprised by it, and are left with a stiff horror that is more cluttered than ever scary or intriguing in its supernatural elements. The exception to this is in the character of Willie Loomis. Willie’s presence in Dark Shadows is firmly rooted in the comedic and the best unspoiled lines of the film are all delivered by him.
Unfortunately, spoiling the film – or presenting it through advertising as one type of film when it is much more of a blend – ends up as only one problem. Within the movie itself, Dark Shadows tries to take on too much. While it is clear that the writers Seth Grahame-Smith and John August have a clear knowledge of the original Dark Shadows, they try to cram pretty much all they know into one movie. This would be like making an NCIS movie wherein the film tried to incorporate everyone’s favorite moments into one movie. It simply doesn’t work.
As a result, the Josette/Victoria character and plot arc is sacrificed to a somewhat ridiculous ball scene featuring Alice Cooper. Dr. Julia Hoffman, established as a drunkard and a believer in the paranormal, ends up cut ridiculously fast (Hoffman’s attempt to cure Barnabas of his vampirism was a multi-week arc in the original show) and Carolyn’s supernatural revelation is revealed as if it were an afterthought. Saving any of these plotlines for a subsequent movie could have made the conflict between Angelique and Barnabas a more focused and compelling plot. As it is, though, the Victoria Winters aspect of the film seems more like a convenient plot device by which Angelique manipulates Barnabas and adds a slight bump in the character conflict to the climax of the movie.
The acting in Dark Shadows is entirely unsurprising. Johnny Depp plays Barnabas Collins virtually identically to how he has played any number of prior outsider characters (usually in Tim Burton films!). Similarly, Helena Bonham Carter gives us nothing new and Michelle Pfeiffer returns to the Burton fold in a vastly less memorable way than her performance of Selena Kyle in Batman Returns. Eva Green is largely just a pretty face (throughout much of the film, she seemed to simply be channeling Alice Eve) and Bella Heathcote’s bland performance of Victoria was not enough to make me look up any other film she has been in.
The only real surprise from the acting is from Jackie Earle Haley. Haley, who came to my attention as the intense anti-hero Rorschach in Watchmen (reviewed here!) before taking up the mantle of Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare On Elm Street (reviewed here!) pulls off comedy well in Dark Shadows. Willie Loomis is a dimwit and Jackie Earle Haley plays him as a slow, somewhat moronic character exceptionally well. He is the only real reason to sit through Dark Shadows
Alas, it is not enough. Dark Shadows is still on the underside of average movies and it is unsurprising that it is being met with a lukewarm response. Even Tim Burton fans, who might appreciate the color contrast, but lament the otherwise lacking sense of Burton’s surrealism, are likely to be unimpressed by Dark Shadows.
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© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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