It used to be that one could think of Johnny Depp and Tim Burton as human representations of a candy bar slogan: "Two great tastes that taste great together." Cinematically, their collaborative efforts have produced varying degrees of great taste: Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, Sweeney Todd, and the like. However, in their latest cinematic foray together, Dark Shadows, the taste has gone a tad stale like an Oreo cookie left out too long.
Based on the soap opera created by the late Dan Curtis, the story follows Barnabas Collins (Depp), the son of a fishing magnate who has a torrid affair with one of the family servants, Angelique Bouchard (a very vampy Eva Green, Casino Royale) though he focuses his true romantic affections for Josette Du Pres (Bella Heathcote, who also plays the governess Victoria Winters later in the film). Unbeknownst to Barnabas, Angelique is a witch who does not take being scorned lightly. Thus she both kills Josette and transforms Barnabas into a vampire, the latter of whom is taken by the townspeople of Collinswood and entombed for almost two hundred years. Barnabas is inadvertently released in the year 1972, where he discovers that the grand estate of Collinwood has fallen to disrepair and his descendants have fared no better. Among the Collinwood clan are family matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer, looking almost as pale as Barnabas); her rebelliously problematic daughter, Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz, who brings her "Hit Girl" attitude to the fore); and Elizabeth's conniving brother Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller) who neglects his son, David (Gulliver McGrath), a boy who claims to see his dead mother. To his dismay, Barnabas finds that his once proud fishing empire has been destroyed and supplanted by a company owned by the seemingly immortal Angelique. With the aid of his family (and groundskeeper Willie, played by a slightly amusing Jack Earle Haley, Watchmen), Barnabas attempts to return the fishing empire to its former glory. Yes, you read right. The milieu is a Gothic horror setting replete with vampires, witches, and sundry creatures of the night, and the crux of the story is the resuscitating of a business? But then, this is a tongue-in-cheek reinvention that is emblematic of Tim Burton's quirkiness; a quirkiness that once made Batman Returns practically unmarketable to the action figure buying set.
The film’s visuals are starkly stunning; bright, often garish colors contrasting the Gothic bleakness of the setting. Yet for all that, the film seems strangely self-indulgent. Scenes that show Barnabas' loquacious eloquence juxtaposed against modern (by 1970s standards, anyways) dialect seems to go much too long; as if Barnabas, and Depp by extension, wax poetic simply to hear the sounds of their collective voice. The “stranger in a strange time/land” shtick is marginally amusing but, in all honesty, has worked better in other films.
The series upon which this film was based was filmed with the intention of being serious but was unintentionally campy. This film works in reverse; unfortunately, the reversal doesn't quite work. The actors, particularly Pfeiffer, deliver their lines in over the top fashion, even at the more subdued, seemingly poignant scenes which only works to dilute the impact of those scenes. Each character is instead a caricature, including Depp. As far as delivering the comedic bits, they are executed well; which may work for a series of vignettes but not as a movie on the whole. The only ones who seem to embrace the campiness of the proceedings are Burton’s nepotistic mainstay Helena Bonham Carter as Dr. Julia Hoffman, and Green as Angelique, who, with the aid of the cinematographer, has the remarkable ability to turn her beauty into something grotesque. Her villainy would be more effective in a truly horrifying film but, in truth, it’s wasted here. The film is too genteel in story and presentation to be anything worth of note. While some would argue that the series had the same deficiency, at least the show’s actors and narrative compelled one to watch the next installment (perhaps in the hopes of something better the next episode). Here, Burton's direction fails to do even that.
This is not to state that if the film had been treated straight it would have been better. Ben Cross starred in a 1990s reboot of the show, which was basically a cliff notes version of what had already gone before. Unlike the original, it was treated completely straight and died a quick death. Here, Burton has gone the other way and it unfortunately does not satisfy either. As a whole, Dark Shadows is a whole lot of dull. The few moments of humor does not offset the overwhelming sense of ennui over the proceedings. This version of Dark Shadows is sure to alienate the die-hard fans of the show. However, it is so pedantically plodding that it is sure to do the same to the non-fans as well. This film is like a Reese's peanut butter cup way past its expiration date. It just goes to show that not all steady collaborations have a perfect track record.