It's easy to find fault with Dark Shadows, but it's also easy to have fun while you're watching it, which is why I'm recommending it. Yes, the movie suffers from the same problem a lot of Tim Burton films do, in that it emphasizes style over substance. (To this day, Ed Wood remains his most affectionate and human film.) And yes, you can also easily argue that the narrative is a mess of ideas, and characters who aren't even developed. But, the film's Gothic mood, off-kilter dark humor, and all around strangeness worked with me. It's a nice return to non-conventional form for Burton, after the all-too conventional and boring Alice in Wonderland.
As everyone must know, the film is based on a campy soap opera from the 60s and 70s, that's more remembered for its unintentional comic value than anything else. I have not seen the show, so I cannot make any claims as to how faithful the film is, or what fans will think of it. What Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith have done is created an off the wall melodrama about an undead vampire, his scorned witch lover, and a small fishing village caught in the middle of their eternal struggle. The film opens in the 18th Century, where the son of a wealthy landowner, Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), is enjoying his family wealth in the small town his clan founded called Collinsport, and deep in love with the beautiful Josette (Bella Heathcote). His love angers the housemaid Angelique (Eva Green), who is secretly a witch, and not-so-secretly in love with Barnabas. In revenge for rejecting her, Angelique curses the Collins family name, kills Josette, transforms Barnabas into a vampire, and turns the entire village against him, which leads to him being buried alive in a coffin.
Flash forward some 200 years later (1972, to be exact), and the town of Collinsport is in shambles, although Angelique (who is still alive, thanks to her magic) has transformed herself into a powerful business owner, and has basically driven the current members of the Collins family into near-bankruptcy. Barnabas is freed from his supposedly eternal prison by a construction crew (whom he immediately feasts on as soon as he is freed), and then heads to his family mansion home, only to find the house in decrepit shambles, the family business in pieces, and his current descendants a sad sack family of eccentric dysfunctional oddballs. There's the matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), who is the first to discover who Barnabas really is, her louse of a brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), wannabe hippie teen daughter Carolyn (Chloe Moretz), and Roger's son, David (Gulliver McGrath), who can (and frequently does) see and communicate with ghosts. Little David's odd behavior has caused his father to all but ignore him, and forced the family to have a full-time psychiatrist (Helena Bonham Carter) live with them.
Also living within the Collins home is the newest member, a nanny by the name of Victoria Winters (Bella Heathecote, in a dual role). Her physical resemblance to Barnabas' tragic lost love jump starts a romantic subplot that is supposed to provide the heart of the movie, but it never really gets off the ground. We don't spend enough time with Victoria, so she never develops as a real character. Likewise, the relationship that builds between Barnabas and her feels tacked on, as we never get a reason for why they are drawn to each other, other than the fact she resembles the woman he loved 200 years ago. The whole family actually suffers from similar problems. We're introduced to them, and their individual quirks and problems, and then the movie pretty much leaves it at that. There is no development for any of the family members, so when they start spouting lines about how they have to stick together and the importance of family, it simply feels hollow. The family never gets to play a real role in the film, except for the end, where some very sloppily inserted plot developments suddenly throw them in the center.
What does work (and what the movie mainly focuses on) is the rivalry between Barnabas and the witch, Angelique. It is a complex relationship, as there is obviously some sexual tension and desire between them, but they are sworn enemies. This leads to some melodramatic dialogue, a lot of glaring at one another, and even some supernatural love making, where they trash an entire room in a fit of unwise passion with each other. Dark Shadows is a movie filled with clever and off-kilter ideas, that is unfortunately surrounded by stuff that doesn't work as well. When it does work, the movie has a bizarre kind of energy I admired. Depp plays Barnabas as a proper nobleman who cannot hold back from his need to slash open a throat now and then (he does have to eat). With his pale skin, yellow claw-like fingernails, and overdone clothing, he looks like a Gothic cartoon caricature of an 18th Century nobleman. The movie does have some fun with him being out of his element, and dealing with 1970s pop culture, such as hippies, troll dolls, and lava lamps.
Even more fun to watch is Eva Green as Angelique, who appropriately chews the scenery, and slithers about it like a highly-aroused snake. She's having a blast with her vampish villain character, and it really comes through in a performance that's kind of sexy and naughty in a playful sort of way. On the whole, the entire movie is fun to watch, thanks to a great production design, and some well-used pop and rock music from the era on the soundtrack. The performances, the strong production, and the overall dark sexuality of the film helped with the obvious script problems, at least for me. I'm sure there will be many who accuse the movie as being all flash, with little underneath. I won't be able to argue with that. All I can say is that I had fun, and the movie worked enough for me, so I am recommending it.
I have a feeling that Dark Shadows will struggle with finding an audience, especially with the summer movie season just kicking off. It's a little too uneven and odd to be a major tentpole production going up against a crowd pleaser like The Avengers. Even so, this stands as some of Burton's best work in a while. It's still not close to some of his classic films, but it will certainly do.
See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at Amazon.com!