Dark Shadows (Film Review)
Dark Shadows is Tim Burton and Johnny Depp’s 8th collaboration and their interpretation of the cult 1960s Supernatural drama of the same name. In both versions the Collins family is the order of the day, of which we are introduced to through Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), an early patriarch of the family who helped establish them after moving from England. Who was at the centre of an unfortunate love triangle between his true love Josette DuPres and the jealous servant Angelique Bouchard – a spiteful witch. Angelique concludes that if she cannot have her love no one can by murdering Josette, cursing Barnabus to spend eternity as a vampire and then setting the townspeople on him, sealing him in a coffin, burying him ‘alive’. Then, thanks to all the curses on his family and lover lining up he is freed from his captivity. No longer is it 1790s frontier America, it is 1972.
The set-up is fine but the villain of the piece Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) is set up as nothing more than an obsessive stalker, their fleeting relationship is not evidence enough to curse the Collins family for all time. When the story moves forward to the 1970s that same frustratingly underwritten quality comes to the foreground again.
Each of the characters has an arc that informs their background and any later development, whether it is David and his live in psychiatrist played by Burton regular Helena Bonham Carter, the fishing business that made the Collins name now ran by Michelle Pfeiffer, in tatters. There’s a conflict between family and fortune in David’s dad, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller). There’s the barely seen isolation of daughter Carolyn (Chloe Moretz). The main offender however is the so-called romance between Barnabus and a descendant of his lost love, Victoria (they’re both played by Bella Heathcote). So-called as they share very little screen time yet this is supposed to be a believable romance spanning life, death and time. This romantic liaison has all the depth of the obsessive bond between Barnabas and Angelique. This means that there is a lack of through line in the film. There is nothing that can be pinpointed, where you can say, yes, this is what Dark Shadows is about.
Instead both Depp and Burton use the foundation of Barnabus as a fish out of the water to pin the film on. Barnabas doesn’t understand the 1970s and therein lies the gag. It would be one thing if this was funny, but all the best ones were played in the trailer which by turns was seriously over-played, meaning all the best jokes have been heard time and time before. This isn’t a new thing by any means, but that still doesn’t make it any less disappointing.
All these negatives would make any other film unsalvageable, yet that isn’t entirely the case with Dark Shadows. Maybe that serves to illustrate how welcome a director Tim Burton is when he is not directing a film plagued by studio design, maybe it expresses how strong the strengths of this film are. That strength is Eva Green. For many an actor making that transition to the surreal gothicka of Tim Burton it would be too much, Green takes to the role like a duck to water. She brings a manic beauty and energy to a role which is frankly one-dimensional, and still turns all her scenes into the high points. The film never sparks or clicks together as nicely as it does when she is on-screen.
Although not a classic of Burton’s filmography by any stretch this is still undoubtedly a film of his unique imagination. Conceptually and tonally similar to Beetlejuice, the most archetypal of all Burton works. Even when the film is 12A rated there is still a considerable amount of fantasy and horror themed violence, some of which is very strong. Such as Barnabus’ escape and later feeding on some “friendly unshaven people”, it jumps from family friendly to violent with awkward fluidity.
Dark Shadows is not the return to form for Tim Burton, but a step in the right direction after the phase of his career working for Disney. The comedy may fall flat just as the story is both under and over-written. Yet thanks to the star quality of Eva Green there are also moments that fully repay the ticket price, whether it is her insane bug-eyed energy or a final act which is both compromised and far out. The Dark Shadows is a bad film, but one that is difficult to disparage too aggressively, thanks to little glimmers of light in the darkness.