Film Review: Dark Shadows

A vampire must defeat a witch in order to resurrect his family's fortunes in director Tim Burton's retelling of a 1960s soap opera.

The Collins family returns with a few new quirks in Dark Shadows, Tim Burton's meticulous reconstruction of the 1960s television soap opera. Always a cult item, Dark Shadows has now been entombed with a thick layer of irony. Fans of Burton and the show will find plenty to chuckle over here; others may be more bemused than entertained.

A prologue set in the 18th century takes the family from England to the seacoast of Maine, where young heir Barnabas (Johnny Depp) falls in love with Josette (Bella Heathcote), earning the enmity of jealous witch Angelique (Eva Green). Spells doom Josette and turn Barnabas into a vampire. He is subsequently buried alive by townspeople.

Unearthed by Collinsport construction workers after 200 years, Barnabas returns to the Collins estate to learn that his descendants have fallen on hard times. Vowing to restore their fortunes, Barnabas must again battle Angelique, who is now disguised as Angie, the de facto leader of Collinsport.

Dark Shadows is being advertised as a comedy, and it is to the extent that you find in-jokes about a 40-year-old television show funny. In the reign of Twilight, Depp's pitch-perfect depiction of an old-school vampire has its delectable moments. Caked in green makeup, drawling out his lines, Depp is clearly delighted to be playing Barnabas. His effortless command of the screen elevates even his weakest scenes.

Apart from Depp, only Michelle Pfeiffer as a put-upon matriarch displays much comedic skill. Green gives a fearless performance as a witch, but can't do much with her material. Helena Bonham Carter is tiresome as an alcoholic psychiatrist, while the pretty but vacuous Bella Heathcote has trouble filling out her underwritten role. Christopher Lee shows up for a sharp cameo, and the late Jonathan Frid, TV's original Barnabas, can be spotted during a party scene.

Most of Dark Shadows is arch rather than comic, with strained whimsy substituting for genuine jokes. Worse, the film seems to stumble haphazardly from one plot idea to the next, scattering momentum and tension. And there's the nagging sense that Burton expects viewers to take the issues at stake here seriously.

They could—at least in the prologue, which is gorgeously shot and edited to Danny Elfman's sweeping musical themes. By playing the material straight instead of pausing over obvious gags, Burton achieves in the opening something approaching real emotion.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film resorts to jokes about lava lamps, ersatz rock star Alice Cooper, and the foibles of weak males in the hands of predatory women. On some levels Burton has been making films like this over and over again since Beetlejuice. After 25 years, his exquisite visual sense, jaundiced take on characters and relentless pursuit of the macabre have become rote, lifeless, devoid of surprise.

On the other hand, Burton's Alice in Wonderland grossed a billion dollars worldwide, and Johnny Depp in heavy makeup can be a formidable box-office threat. And to his credit, unlike many of his contemporaries Burton is able to get his vision onto the screen intact. If you are tuned into his style, Dark Shadows will not disappoint.