I've enjoyed a lot of Tim Burton films. Sleepy Hollow, Ed Wood, and his original Batman are easy favorites, and I'm pretty fond of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorshands. When, however, came Burton's Planet of the Apes in 2001, for the first time, one of his films about made me chuck some biscuits, to put it in the old Martinsville vernacular.
Sadly, Dark Shadows is more akin to Planet of the Apes than Sleepy Hollow.
There's little point comparing this Dark Shadows to the original franchise; from its opening moments, it quickly becomes clear that this film is its own animal, and that's as it should be. This animal's biggest problem is that it suffers the same malady as the Roger Moore James Bond films of the 1970s and early 80s: the blend of humor and seriousness is awkward, even schizophrenic, and the script is more about timed punches than solid storytelling. Dark Shadows has no idea whether it's a juvenile comedy, a dark fantasy, a tribute, or a parody. It could be any or all of these, but its individual components are all a-jumble, in strange and mismatched proportions. Time after time, scenes that open with all kinds of dark resonance, offering hints of character motivation or development of plot points, switch gears and go for the joke. This is not so much comic relief as comic overkill. With numerous vampire properties currently going strong, such as Twilight, True Blood, and The Vampire Diaries, if comparisons are to be made, it's more apt to compare this film to them. It's not a happy thing that a major motion picture, helmed by numerous respected veterans, suffers so in comparison to even a weekly vampire series on CW TV. (Matter of fact, The Vampire Diaries does more credit to Dark Shadows' legacy than this film, and I'm convinced that Ian Somerhalder would make a perfect Barnabas Collins.)
Note: Here there be spoilers.
The film opens with a brief back story detailing how Barnabas Collins (Johny Depp) became a vampire. He's in love with Josette DuPres (Bella Heathcote) but, in a terrible error of judgment, has a tryst with resident witch, Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green). Smarting from the subsequent jilting, Angelique smacks him with the vampire curse, sends Josette plummeting to her death from the cliff at Widows' Hill, and sees to it that Barnabas is chained in his coffin for the next couple of centuries. The prologue is superficial, at best, but — fair enough — there's only so much running time this part of the story can occupy. Moving forward to 1972, in a scene that sets up a tone that would have been admirable, had it been sustained, prospective governess Victoria Winters (also Bella Heathcote) makes her way by train to Collinsport, Maine, to the haunting, wistful strains of The Moody Blues' Nights in White Satin. Her introduction to the Collins family members and attendants is disconcerting, for they are an odd and initially hostile lot: Elizabeth Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer); her daughter, Carolyn (Chloe Moretz); her ne'er-do-well brother, Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller); his son, David (Gulliver McGrath), who enjoys conversing with his long-dead mother; alcoholic caretaker Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley); and alcoholic psychiatrist, Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter). One can sympathize with straightlaced-to-the-point-of-quirky Victoria as she comprehends the depths of the peculiar personalities with whom she will be forced to interact. However, before any of these relationships can be cemented, the point of view shifts to Barnabas as he emerges from his coffin in the 20th century, and for much of the picture, Victoria is all but forgotten.
Once Barnabas becomes the center of attention, we have a long, tedious run of gags involving his displacement in time and a bit of not terribly amusing sexual innuendo with young Carolyn. Clearly, Victoria Winters is a reincarnation of Josette, though this connection is never explained or even addressed. The Collins family is suffering financially, primarily due to their business rival, who turns out to be none other than the immortal Angelique herself. Barnabas, having the literal key to the hidden family jewels, swears to put things right and return the Collins family to its former prominence. There's some obligatory over-the-top sexual interplay between Barnabas and Angelique, most of which feels like padding. In a nod to the original series, Julia Hoffman takes it upon herself to attempt to cure Barnabas of his vampirism but, in an odd twist, attempts to reverse the process so that his blood will turn her into a vampire. He's not keen on the idea and resolves the problem in his own unique way.
So, how better to show the town that the Collins family is on top again than by throwing a ball (which, yes, does become fodder for more sexual innuendo) that includes Alice Cooper? Early on, I feared that Alice Cooper's inclusion would be superfluous, and in truth, it is; but, surprisingly, the ball scene is pretty good, and I rather enjoyed Chloe Moretz providing the vocal intro to The Ballad of Dwight Fry. Also in the ball scene, we get a few brief glimpses of original Dark Shadows stars Kathryn Leigh Scott, Lara Parker, David Selby, and the late Jonathan Frid, who may pass unnoticed by muggles but will certainly stand out to fans.
At last, the final showdown. Angelique comes round and, using a recording of Barnabas admitting to killing several folks for their blood, whips the townsfolk into a frenzy and goads them to storm Collinwood. Barnabas reveals himself to all as a vampire and attacks Angelique. Special effects extravaganza commences, and Collinwood catches fire. David's ghostly mother shows up to fuss at Angelique. And — whoa there, partner — Carolyn reveals herself to be a werewolf. Mercy! Finally, Angelique literally loses her heart to Barnabas.
After things have calmed a bit, Victoria wanders over to Widows' Hill to throw herself off. This time, determined not to suffer a repeat of the tragedy with Josette, Barnabas flies off the cliff after her and changes her into a vampire before their bodies smack against the rocks below. Happy happy. Love is thicker than blood is thicker than water.
There's a final scene that I detested, which I'll not bother revealing. It seems another contrivance, potentially opening the way, I suppose, for more crap to happen in a subsequent Dark Shadows film.
The lavish sets; the Collinwood design, which satisfyingly hearkens to the architecture of Seaview Terrace from the original TV series; and the atmospheric cinematography do provide a great deal of aesthetic appeal. Danny Elfman's score borrows some of the motifs and the distinctive instrumentation of Robert Cobert's masterful compositions from the original series to good effect (I enjoyed the score enough to order the soundtrack). These, at least, are stylistic touches that are characteristic of Tim Burton's attention to detail. Sadly, style is not enough to imbue this movie with a lot of heart. Or cohesiveness.
It really needs more of both. Seriously.
Out of six Damned Rodan's Dirty Firetinis, I give Dark Shadows two. Maybe an extra olive for style and Bella Heathcote.