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.