Tim Burton lavishes his usual visual flair on this re-imagining of the 70s cult horror soap opera. The film opens with a breathless, full-blooded Gothic prologue which sets up the conflict for the rest of the film. Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), scion of a wealthy 18th century family whose immense mansion looms over the New England fishing village below, spurns beautiful witch Angelique (Eva Green) in favor of his true love, Josette (Bella Heathcoate). Angelique retaliates by killing Barnabas' parents with a falling block of stone, sending a spell-bound Josette over a cliff to be dashed upon the rocks below, and finally, cursing Barnabas to live the rest of his days as a vampire. Rousing the townspeople against him, she buries him in a chain-lined coffin and leaves him to contemplate his sorrow for nearly 200 years.
The film next jumps forward to 1972, and in a marvelous opening credits montage, set to the Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin," young Victoria (Heathcoate again) makes her way to the Collinwood estate to become governess to Barnabas' modern-day descendants. She finds the great house in a state of disrepair and neglect, inhabited by the dysfunctional Collins family, led by matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her sullen teen daughter, Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), ne'er-do-well widower Roger (Johnny Lee Miller), his gentle yet troubled son David (Gulliver McGrath), David's psychiatrist, the alcoholic Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) and groundskeeper Williie Loomis (played for inconsequential comedic effect by Jackie Earle Haley).
Meanwhile, Barnabas is accidentally freed from his imprisonment when his grave is dug up by some construction workers, whom the ever-polite and apologetic vampire massacres in a frenzy of bloodlust (this scene ends in one of the films' best visual jokes, as Barnabas looks up at the alien-to-him sight of a famous fast food chain's Golden Arches.)
Barnabas swiftly returns to his ancestral home and sets out to restore it, and the family's fortunes, to their original glory, much to the chagrin of Angelique, who has usurped leadership of the town over the past two centuries, and whose love/hate relationship with Barnabas leads to a final, fiery confrontation.
Like so many recent blockbusters, ultimately Dark Shadows is less than the sum of its parts. There is much to admire here, however. Typical of a Tim Burton film, it is absolutely gorgeous visually, a triumph of art direction, design and lustrous cinematography (by Bruno Delbonnel). Johnny Depp buries himself in the character of Barnabas, and maintains a consistent persona of a man out of his time, confused yet ready to adapt to this new age, conflicted by his curse, and most of all, ruthlessly dedicated to his family. There are many effective scenes of comedy and straight-up horror, and Depp's archaic dialogue is frequently a hoot. The movie was marketed as a comedy, but while there are definitely several humorous bits scattered throughout, overall the film plays its story pretty straight.
Though an undisputed visual genius, Burton, as usual, proves to be his own worst enemy when it comes to plot construction and satisfying storytelling. He can't resist throwing in some uneven and misjudged moments, such as an early, silly seduction scene between Barnabas and Angelique, an unnecessary musical performance by Alice Cooper at a Collinwood ball (this at least does lead to a funny remark from Barnabas, as he regards Cooper through opera glasses: "That is the ugliest woman I have ever seen.") and the rather overbaked finale. There's also a subplot about young Carolyn's own curse that doesn't really pay off like it should. The film curiously feels overstuffed and underdeveloped; the movie sets up a large number of interesting characters and plot points that are largely ignored or shuffled to the sidelines in order to keep the focus on Depp, and to a lesser extent, Green.
Jonathan Frid, the original Barnabas Collins
Some diehard fans of Dan Curtis' original Dark Shadows series will likely complain about some of the changes Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith have wrought in this big-budget version. Never having seen more than a few minutes of the original show, I can't say I was bothered one way or the other. I am familiar enough with the broad strokes of the 70s soap, and it seems to me that the filmmakers have kept fairly true to the general story arc and conception of Barnabas, as well as keeping at least some fidelity when it comes to the Collinwood family. (There's a blink-and-you'lll-miss-it cameo with original Barnabas Jonathan Frid and a few other cast members that's so brief, it seems curious why Burton even bothered.)
Despite its numerous flaws, there was enough good stuff in Dark Shadows to keep me entertained. If Burton and company could have found a more consistent tone, and marshalled all the ungainly story elements and roster of supporting players into a more cohesive whole, they might have really had something special. As it is, it's a messy yet interesting grab-bag of Gothic melodrama, monster mayhem, and fish-out-of water comedy. It might be a misfire, but at least you can tell Burton's passion was engaged in this project compared to his last, the rather soulless, just-doing-it-for-the-paycheck Alice in Wonderland.
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