A vampire comedy horror at the hands of Tim Burton, starring (of course) Johnny Depp sounds to many film fans like an unfailing combination. When that vampire comedy horror happens to be Dark Shadows, a film adaptation of the classic cult hit TV series of the same name, expectations of excellence are likely to reach unfathomable heights. It’s unfortunate then that Dark Shadows is such a flop.
Dark Shadows is the story of Barnabas Collins, a man turned into a vampire by a jilted lover, a witch, and buried for two hundred years. Barnabas rises from the grave to find his family fortunes lost, his town, Collinsport, now under the power of the dreaded witch herself, his dysfunctional descendents inhabiting his once grand mansion and a modern world that remains a complete mystery to him. Determined to restore the Collins name return his family to honour, Barnabas sets about to defeat the evil witch ex-lover, and falls in love with the family governess who looks just like his former lover, along the way.
Playing the creature that doesn’t fit into the world around him has never been a difficult role for Johnny Depp and he can’t be really be faulted as Barnabas Collins except to say at times Depp seems to be just going through his typical motions and never extends beyond what we’ve already seen so often from him. The witch Eva Green, who played Morgan Le Fay in Starz’s Camelot (2011) and Serafina Pekkala in The Golden Compass (2007), may also be at risk of a typecast, but she plays the type so well, even with a script so lacking as this, it might not be a bad thing. Michelle Pfeiffer does a reasonable job as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard but a distinct lack of character development inhibited her usual acting ability and charisma and for a lot of the film she seems to be just taking up screen space. A surprising standout role comes from Australian actress and relatively new comer, Bella Heathcote who even with a barely developed script managed to shine. Overall, with a pedigree cast and crew of this magnitude, Dark Shadows should and could have been a whole lot better. Characters are barely types, and some, Helena Bonham Carter’s Doctor Hoffman for instance seem entirely pointless.
The film tone leaps all over the place from campy humour to gothic drama and romance and never quite catching onto anything. And the whole werewolf thing was simply absurd to the point of irritating. A cameo from Alice Cooper – and Barnabas’ observation that he might just be the ugliest woman he has ever seen – is a short lived highlight. There are a couple of other mild chuckles, mostly stemming from Barnabas’ fish-out-of-water position, but the film’s overall intended humour never takes flight. There is a sense that Dark Shadows is trying for a satirical edge against the paranormal trends of vampire and werewolf (insert supernatural creature of choice here) culture that has been saturating mainstream pop culture for the last few years, but again this is something that barely touches its own aspirations. At the very least, Dark Shadows is a visually impressive film with lavish sets and stunning costumes and Johnny Depp and Bella Heathcote aren’t hard to look at either.
Dark Shadows’ failings are not just a case of viewer expectations being set too high. The Burton, Depp and Carter trio’s trademark dark peculiarity is evident to a minimal degree but is unfortunately continuously stalled by the weakness and incoherence of the plot and the distinct lack of characterisation. Even trusted cinema personalities and such perfect source material such as that which permeates this film require a bit more than their star pulling power. Dark Shadows seems lazy and hurried and is an overall disappointment.