‘Dark Shadows’ Gets Lost In Search Of A Story

I had hopes that Dark Shadows would be something of a return to form for Tim Burton. The trailers had hinted at a film that at least had some narrative propulsion. Even if it didn’t turn out to be scary or bear any of Burton’s old inventiveness, it at least promised to be a fun romp.

It was lying. While it’s a far better film than Alice In Wonderland, and I do want to emphasize far better, it succeeds only in trapping its talented and effective cast in a series of scenes and situations rather than an actual movie. Of course a motion picture can often be defined as a series of scenes, but usually they flow organically into each other or at least have something to do with the overall narrative of the film. That’s not the case here.

The first half hour or so works. We see young Barnabas Collins and his family from Liverpool come to US shores and build and build their fishing empire in Collinsport, Maine (along with their sprawling mansion, Collinwood Manor). Barnabas grows into something of a playboy in his early adulthood, only to make the mistake of spurning house maiden Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green). When he finally does fall in what seems like true love with Josette DuPres (Bella Heathcote), Bouchard is revealed as a witch who will stop at nothing to redirect Barnabas’ attentions to her. She kills his parents, she kills Josette and she turns Barnabas into a vampire and buries him alive.

Some 200 years later (196 to be exact) he’s inadvertently exhumed during the construction of a new McDonald’s. After making a feast of the construction workers he returns to his home only to discover that the passage of time has not been kind to his estate or his descendants. Makeshift matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her brother Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller) live in the house with their respective children Carolyn Stoddard (Chloe Grace Moretz) and David Collins (Gulliver McGrath). Grounds keeper Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley) and alcoholic psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) round out the residential tally of the household. None of them are doing particularly well. And neither is the family’s fishing empire which has been decimated by the still-alive Angelique’s competing business venture. Perhaps most importantly, the family has hired a new nanny to look after David – Victoria Winters, who is also (tellingly) played by Bella Heathcote.

Watching all of those pieces get set up and positioned into play is actually pretty fun. But then the film almost immediately announces that it’s in no real hurry to do anything with them. The original “Dark Shadows” was a long, sprawling soap opera and I get that the filmmakers are trying to recapture that narrative sprawl here. But Dark Shadows is a movie and as such it’s destined to fail as a soap opera, and in trying to be a soap opera it fails as a movie.

The cast is fine, and Johnny Depp certainly brings his expert comic timing to the role. And of course the film looks beautiful. But it suffers from Burton’s insistence on pausing the story in order to drop his characters into fish-out-of water situations. It’s fun for a bit to watch Barnabas interact with the kitsch of the 70′s, but it eventually consumes the movie. In fact, so much of the film’s running time is spent on extraneous asides that the entire love story – intended to be the heart of the film and the impetus for Barnabas to change – occurs offscreen.

Dark Shadows is nearly two hours long, and you feel every second of it. Yet there’s no time for character development and you’re never invested in what’s happening. Several reveals near the end that should have been slam dunks land with a thud. How are you supposed to care when a character isn’t quite what they seemed when you never got to know them or their real struggles in the first place?

As fragmented as it is, Dark Shadows does have its merits. But, like the soap opera it aspires to be, it would be much more enjoyable in shorter installments. That way you could forget that nothing and too much are somehow simultaneously happening. Unfortunately, right now you’re stuck sitting through the whole thing.

5/10

Official Score

  • Ashole

    Well if you think Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland was so bad than I might actually enjoy this movie because I really enjoyed that one and if Dark Shadows is far better, well then I must see it. I respect Bloody Disgusting’s reviews over any other when it comes to movies but we might have to disagree on this one. I’ll have to go see the movie to find out I suppose.

    • Evan3

      Perhaps you are confusing Tim Burton’s incredibly horrible (and terribly acted) Alice in Wonderland with the animated Disney version and that explains why you liked it so much?

  • MyScaryHalloween

    Having only minimal exposure to the original Dark Shadows, I loved Tim Burton’s campy melodrama. As expected, it’s visually stunning, and often hilarious, thanks in part to screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith who gives Johnny Depp some exceptionally droll bon mots. Sure it meanders, and much of the cast gets lost in the thin story, but it is supposed to be a soap opera! And this one is quite fun.

  • letoatreides3508

    I was profoundly disappointed when I first saw the trailer for this movie. I love the original series (used to watch it on SyFy every day right after I got home from school, back when SyFy was still The Science Fiction Channel), and was hoping for a serious movie… And the trailer made it look more like a parody. Tim Burton used to be one of my favorite directors, but he seems to be fading into the realm of late career mediocrity nowadays.

    http://cinemacthulu.blogspot.com/

  • dustoff

    I have to say, I did enjoy the humour in this movie a lot, but where it let me down was the lack of cohesive story elements. There’s little to no character development. And sweet Jesus, Chloe Moretz was absolutely terrible, and she needs to do better in her upcoming role as Carrie. Thank all-powerful Atheismo that she wasn’t on screen for very long.

  • CountOrlok

    Never saw the original Dark Shadows, but this movie bored me to death.

  • Golgothmog

    I had a lot of the same thoughts… it’s a collection of scenes that don’t really tell a cohesive story. It has some funny parts… but not nearly enough to be considered a comedy, they’re just sprinkled haphazardly throughout the movie.
    Was it just me or did every one of Chloe Whatshername’s scenes seem like product placement for the actress?
    It was NOT a good movie… but I enjoyed bits of it… especially Helena Bonham Carter… I wanted a LOT more of her.