Is Dark Shadows a good movie? I’ve seen worse. While this may be damning with faint praise, it does come across at best as a fan tribute to the classic soap opera.
The film opens sometime in the early 18th Century. Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) is the local landowner of Collinsport and enjoys his position and power to the utmost. Angelique (Eva Green), a maid at Collinwood, sees herself as Barnabas’s true love. He sees her as a sometime dalliance and informs her of this. Pity for him Angelique is also a witch and she turns him into a vampire after killing Barnabas’s fiancé Josette (Bella Heathcote). Not finished with her revenge, Angelique also has Barnabas sealed inside a coffin and buried alive.
Jumping ahead to 1972, Barnabas is released from his tomb and finds Collinsport a vastly different place. Making his way home, his finds his descendants mired in various troubles. Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) oversees the crumbling estate alongside her doltish brother Roger (Johnny Lee Miller), her rebellious daughter Carolyn (Chloe Moretz), her eccentric nephew David (Gulliver McGrath), and her live-in psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter). Also arrived at Collinwood is David’s new nanny Victoria Winters (Heathcote again), who has secrets of her own.
Depp and Green are the best things about the film. Depp, however, seems to be autopilot through most of the film. His Barnabas could easily be Captain Sparrow’s cousin or at least a close admirer. Green, by comparison, has a ball. She slinks, vamps, and otherwise devours the scenery whole
It would be easy to rail against the film with the liberties it takes with the television’s continuity, but there actually is a precedent for changing story details. The first Dark Shadows film, House of Dark Shadows, rewrote much of the character’s history for the silver screen and its sequel Night of Dark Shadows ignored all the characters created on the show in favor of a new cast and storyline. So if anything, one could argue that Tim Burton is being faithful to the franchise by not being faithful.
Ignoring the Dark Shadows franchise, does this film hold up as a film? That is harder to say. Victoria Winters is introduced with great aplomb yet she does almost nothing. Her subplot with Barnabas quickly becomes an exercise in telling rather than showing. The rest of the family suffers as well. They are introduced, their main quirks are explained or at least talked about, and then they all leave the main narrative until the end. At that point the film seems to be either trying to surprise the audience with nonsensical twists or else ham-handed references to the show.
The score by Danny Elfman is also weak. I can recall the licensed songs on the soundtrack (mostly pop hits from the early 1970’s) yet as far as original music I can’t remember a single note. The visual design makes up for many problems and there is no doubt that this is a Tim Burton film. Wherever or not this is a lure for the audience I leave to you, dear readers.