RUNNING TIME: 113 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In 1760, Joshua and Naomi Collins sail from Liverpool to Maine, where they set up a fishing port called Collinsport, and also build Collinwood Manor. Their son, Barnabas, grows up to be a wealthy playboy in the town. After he breaks the heart of one of their servants Angelique Bouchard, who actually turns out to be a witch, the family becomes cursed. His parents die and when he falls in love with Josette du Pres in the meantime, jealous Angelique makes her leap to her death from a nearby cliff and turns Barnabas into a vampire, after which the townspeople capture and bury him alive. In 1972, Maggie Evans travels by train to Collinsport, responding to an advertisement to be the governess to a young boy, David Collins. Arriving at Collinwood Manor, she meets the surviving members of the Collins family, who are about to get a big surprise when Barnabas is accidently freed from his coffin by a group of construction workers and turns up at the house…….
Though I am not one of those who thinks Tim Burton has ‘lost it’ somewhat the last few years; for me Sweeney Todd and Corpse Bride showed the director at the top of his game and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory was tremendous fun, but I’m going to admit that I wasn’t overly excited at Dark Shadows. Maybe it’s because Burton’s take on Alice In Wonderland, something which seemed virtually made for him to adapt, was just such a misfire. Maybe it’s because films based on old TV shows, especially of the cult variety, rarely come off successfully. Maybe…….well, I don’t entirely know to be honest. If you actually think about it, a movie based on an American ‘Gothic’ soap opera from the late 60’s/early 70’s, which became very popular after a year when a certain vampire called Barnabas Collins entered the show, sounds like it’s perfect for Burton’s blend of camp, kitsch and the Gothic. Interestingly, this was a project actually initiated by Johnny Depp, who was obsessed with the character of Barnabas as a child and wanted to be him.
I have not seen any of the TV series, nor the two films it spawned in the 70s, so I cannot tell you if Burton’s Dark Shadows is close to its inspiration. What I can tell you, though, is that, after Alice, this is another major disappointment from Burton, who really seems to be coasting on autopilot. Of course it’s not entirely like that, and actually watching the first ten minutes caused me to wonder if the film’s mediocre reception was another instance in which I disagreed with both the critics and the general public. As Barnabas narrates, the exposition is told with great style. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography gives us some great Gothic imagery such as people passing through a wonderfully fog covered forest, Danny Elfman’s music pounds away in that great melodramatic manner he likes to write in, and the direction has an energy and vivid manner that certainly made me think that, far from being one of Burton’s weakest efforts, this is the man working at his very best. And then……well. I’d be wrong if I said that what follows is disastrous and totally devoid of inspiration, but it sure is a slip down from the opening!
Dark Shadows apparently ran for three hours in its first cut, and it almost seems like Chris Lebenzon was the person responsible for messing up the movie in cutting in down. Was Burton actually involved here at all? It sure doesn’t seem like it. The plot is full of different little stories, but it seems like most of them were reduced to the bare minimum to emphasise Barnabas, and even he doesn’t get away scot-free, because his supposed falling in love with one character, seemingly an important sub plot, is reduced to about three scenes. All this is to emphasise his century-spanning feud with Angelique, an idea which has been done to death and is, for the most part, none too interesting viewing, except for a sex scene which may make some laugh as the participants go all over the floor, up the walls, and even on the ceiling. Eve Green is deliciously camp and deliciously sexy as the villainous witch, but Depp seems constrained, restricted, in this film, looking like he wants to be let loose but just isn’t being allowed to. He’s certainly not bad, of course, and is clearly having fun in some scenes, but I wonder if his responsibilities as producer took precedence over his performance.
Then again, one can hardly blame him when confronted with a script that just doesn’t know how to portray his character. We sometimes see him killing off victims, and I wish the darker aspect of his character had been explored, but for the most part it’s just comedy and romance, though that is very muted. Not nearly enough mileage is made of his reaction to things in 1972, and undoubtedly amusing bits of dialogue like “what, does she have a penchant for woodworkers”, said by Barnabas when told a woman he is after likes the Carpenters, are few and far between, while Barnabas falling in love lacks the required emotion because he clearly had no bones about ‘putting it about’ and we are never allowed to feel the torment he must feel. Frankly, I cared little about him, and, as far as old vampires let loose in modern times go, I just wished I was watching George Hamilton in Love At First Bite!
So Dark Shadows, for the most part, goes along in this frustrating, half-hearted fashion, skimming over much but slowing down to a halt at times too, until we get to the obligatory climax where the CGI special effects people can do their thing. Statues come to life, blood runs from paintings, characters fight it out displaying supernatural powers etc; all the stuff you would expect, but we’ve seen it all before [though I did like Angelique’s porcelain look when she is injured] and almost seems like it’s from a different film. Being a Tim Burton film, you would expect the picture to look great and have strong set design, which quite often it does. Collinwood Manor is fantastic; it’s like what Dracula’s castle from the old Hammer movies would have looked like if Hammer had had lots of money. Aurally the film is pleasing too, with some great 70s songs used to comment on what we are seeing, and a very typical but appropriate Danny Elfman score which sometimes uses music from the TV series.
Out of the cast only Green and a very wasted Michelle Pfeiffer really seem to go for it, in fact those two and Depp seem like they are acting in a different picture to everyone else. Little about Dark Shadows fits. It certainly does have things in it which please but they are drowned in mediocrity and the whole thing just does not hang together at all. While technically very good, in most other respects it looks like it was put together in a rush and certainly with regard to the scripting and the editing. In the end, this is one film where I do mostly go along with the majority opinion. It just doesn’t work and only really has scattered bits of interest. With both this and Alice, it seems like Burton finally is starting to work on auto-pilot [exactly what some have been saying about the last few films he made previously but which I disagreed with], and that it a great shame from the director of so many films I love including Edward Scissorhands, which I consider one of the greatest films of all time.