Most of us that are fans of TV have “that one show” growing up. It was that show that you rushed home from school for, or that show you stayed up late to watch. Shows like that tended to push the boundaries in some way, and gained a modicum of lasting appeal, either as a mainstream hit or as a cult phenomenon. For many, including Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, that show was Dark Shadow.
Originally debuting as a daily soap opera in June of 1967, Dark Shadows ran for five years and racked up 1,225 episodes. The show was all over the place. Vampires, werewolves, and witches, Dark Shadows had it all. It was unique for its time, and it can still be found on reruns, in syndication, and even on Netflix.
The thing that made Dark Shadows so beloved was the originality of the plots and the supernatural angle that offered a huge amount of flexibility in the direction of the show. You never knew what was going to happen next. One moment resident vampire Barnabas Collins could be fighting his vampiric curse with his contemporary descendants, the next one of the characters was transported back in time to the 18th century. It was wild, and it gained a loyal and dedicated following that nearly rioted when the show was cancelled in 1971.
So it wasn’t really a surprise to hear that the Hollywood remake-o-tron had its sights set on returning Dark Shadows to the public, but the film really owes its life to the clout of Director Burton and star Depp. It also owes them the blame as well.
Both Burton and Depp are self-professed fans of the series. Depp even claimed that he used to pretend to be the main character, Barnabas Collins, as a kid. Their memories, however, must be of a very different, and somewhat dull show. If so, well then they nailed the adaptation.
Depp is the driving force of this film in more ways than one. The story begins with a young Barnabas Collins and his family leaving England in the 18th century to head to the New World. In Maine they found the town of Collinsport and create a fishing empire that is successful enough that they can afford to build the mansion Collinswood. Then things go badly.
Barnabas loves, then spurns a maid named Angelique (Eva Green), who has a few secrets of her own. She reveals herself to be a witch and curses Barnabas to life as a vampire, then turns the villagers against him. They bury him deep underground, imprisoning him for centuries.
Barnabas is finally freed in the year 1972 and returns to his home to find his descendants, a bizarre group led by the matriarchal Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), living on the reputation of the family name. Barnabas reintegrates himself, and proceeds to help the family rebuild its lost fortune. But Angelique is still very much alive, and has other plans for Barnabas and his family.
There were really only two ways this film could have gone. Either the filmmakers could emphasize the supernatural side of things which would take it more towards horror with an action slant, or it could build on the campiness of the original and become a comedy. Burton leans more towards the comedy, but not nearly far enough.
The problem with Dark Shadows is that it just isn’t really interesting. It is never bad and there is nothing that will offend or really even annoy people, but it is surprisingly tame and dull. The film is so enamored with Depp’s weirdness as a vampiric fish out of water, that it tries to substitute actual storytelling, and even jokes, for more Depp. It didn’t work in the Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, and it doesn’t work here.
The quirkiness which has served Depp so well and justifiably made him one of the world’s biggest stars is beginning to lose its gleam. His performances have begun to outshine, and even supplant the rest of the films he is in. It was the same in Alice in Wonderland and Willy Wonka. In both roles the bizarre performance added very little to the overall narrative, and the same is true here.
Depp is given more screen time at the cost of developing the story and the surrounding characters. And it isn’t just that the supporting cast is neglected–and they are–but there are major story elements which are introduced, ignored, and even totally contradicted later in the film. The ultimate climax also doesn’t make a lick of sense, and the supernatural rules you thought were explained are suddenly shown to be wrong, leading to an end that seems to defy the rest of the movie. It would be similar to a dual in old Western film having one of the characters get shot, then turn and say “Oh, didn’t I mention I’m bulletproof? I thought you knew.”
Part of the problem is also down to the film’s foil, Angelique. Eva Green (Casino Royale, The Golden Compass) does a good job of presenting the ageless witch in a suitably creepy way, but the character is just utterly one-dimensional. Once she is off screen, you completely forget that she is in the movie. The most promising role in the film is that of Victoria Winters, played by the charmingly awkward Bella Heathcote (In Time, Beneath Hill 60), but that potential is also abandoned mid-way through.
The film begins from Victoria’s point of view, and for a significant portion of the early part of Dark Shadows you expect the film to be told from her point of view, even with Depp’s character looming. The film actually seemed to be following a similar path to Alice in Wonderland, which in truth starred Mia Wasikowska despite Depp’s constant overshadowing presence in every promotion for the film. But that doesn’t happen, and the character is missing for giant sections of the film. At some point she becomes little more than a plot point as a potential love interest for Barnabas with a deeper connection that is hinted at, but never really explored.
And while Heathcote’s diminishing role is the most notable, it is far from the only one. Multiple plot lines are introduced, but most aren’t given much room to breathe. Things are suddenly taken for granted, like how one alienated character is suddenly bonded with another. It feels like there are large chunks of the film that are missing. Maybe they are lying on the editing room floor, maybe they were never meant to be. Either way, there are some holes in the narrative that can’t be saved by Depp alone, despite the film’s best attempts to focus on him.
There are moments when Dark Shadows seems to really want to drop some comedic gold on people, but then it pulls back and levels off. The film just never finds that comfortable groove. As a result, it trods along without any real spark, then builds to an improbable conclusion that has no real emotional weight because the necessary connections were never properly fleshed out, plus it comes out of nowhere.
Dark Shadows is just another vehicle for Johnny Depp and Tim Burton to try to push the envelope. The problem is, the envelope was pushed years ago. Without the astounding and original landscape of Wonderland, or the bizarre chocolate factory that Willy Wonka called home, Dark Shadows is stripped down to its most basic elements, and they are found lacking.