Dark Shadows fans, worried that Tim Burton has turned your beloved TV show into something funny? Don’t worry. He hasn’t. Welcome to Collinsport, a sleepy Maine fishing town, home of the supernaturally troubled Collins family and their long lost vampiric relative from centuries ago, Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp). In his younger days, Barnabas made the mistake of fooling around with a jealous witch (Eva Green), and it cost him his humanity and the life of his one true love. He’s back now, and ready to take on the 1970’s fishing industry with gusto! Such is the plot of Dark Shadows, a hopeless mish-mash of weak comedy and even weaker melodrama, chained by the leg to its source material and tossed into a sea of gothic set dressing and meaningless, non-stop talking.
Barnabas Collins is presented on the written page (by screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith) as an insatiable cad, desired by nearly every woman he meets, and unable to control his own lustful urges. It feels appropriate of his soap opera character roots, where passionate sexual trysts are a near-daily activity. What Grahame-Smith may not have counted on is that Burton doesn’t have any interest (or possibly doesn’t even understand) sex at all. Through Depp and Burton’s interpretation, Barnabas is another cartoon character brought to life, influenced simultaneously by German expressionism and the Groovy Ghoulies. Many key scenes, in which Green’s Angelique is able to manipulate Barnabas’s carnal nature into situations that he immediately regrets, end up not making a lick of sense when deflated into an embarrassed rush of special effects and rimshot-ready dialogue.
It’s a real problem. Angelique murders Baranabas’s family, kills the only woman he loves, and curses him with vampirism, and yet he still entertains her advances. In the script, it’s because he can’t get enough of her goods; on the screen, it’s because he’s a damned idiot with no clear motivation other than to “act funny.” Depp is Goth Austin Powers, surrounded by an all-star cast who are ultimately as inconsequential as the set dressing. Burton has been slowly shifting into using actors as props instead of characters (note Helena Bonham-Carter’s bright orange hairdo or Chloe Grace Moretz’s oversexed teen as 1970’s cultural window dressing), and Dark Shadows is almost nothing but production design in the hands of this director.
None of that is to say that the script is any good either. The whole movie is basically a talky, repetitive recap of the events we see in the film’s opening — that the Collins family was once rich and proud, that Angelique wants Barnabas for herself, and that Barnabas can’t hold on to true love. New characters may be introduced as being important, but then they’re forced to sit on the sidelines (or written out entirely, without consequence) so that we can endure another explanation of Angelique’s relationship with Barnabas. In the trappings of a television soap opera, this kind of recapping (three quarts of exposition for every teaspoon of plot momentum) is a necessary evil of the medium; in a film, it’s deadly. Dark Shadows, no matter the intent in the name of fan service, is so slavish to its roots that it’s more concerned with making sure all of the major characters from the show are introduced and ends with no time left to tell, y’know, an actual story.
Burton wraps up the whole thing with a big effects ending that recalls both Jan De Bont’s remake of The Haunting and Joe Johnston’s remake of The Wolf Man, which is probably about the worst place you’d want your gothic horror melodrama to go. The only thing that seems to really matter to the director is, “Did Johnny have a good time?” If that was indeed his only goal, then yes, it looks like Johnny Depp is having a pretty good time. He gets to wear funny make-up and say lines that are more fun to deliver than they are to hear (“You may strategically place your wonderful lips upon my posterior and kiss it repeatedly!”). I’m not sure that anyone else will have a good time.