So, it's come to this: The Tim Burton Players presented Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd, Alice in Wonderland, and now Dark Shadows. Having finished the latest foray of Burton and company into the world of "things we already knew existed and probably liked the first time", I have to say that at least Dark Shadows has the benefit of not feeling "phoned in." It may be the fact that I've only spend two hours with Shadows, as opposed to the (usually) one-and-a-half times watching the other three, but this one was at least mostly successful.
In the interest of fairness, I was once a Tim Burton "fanboy": to this day, I can watch any of his films from Pee Wee's Big Adventure to Sleepy Hollow without hesitation, and I also really like Big Fish as a stylistic, if not tonal, departure from what one expects when one hears the phrase "A Tim Burton Film". On the other hand, I have trouble finishing Planet of the Apes, Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd, and Alice in Wonderland, movies that struggle to capture the Burton "style" but feel labored and undercooked, so to speak.
*. I stopped watching not because of the soap opera plotting or the lack of Barnabas Collins (honestly, I think I saw him twice the entire time), but because I seemed to keep catching episodes where a member of the Collins family ended up traveling back in time to the 1700s. Rather than follow their story, the show would immediately jump into the lives of their ancestors while the displaced Collins descendant cooled their heels in jail. As I remember, this happened at least twice - once on the air and again on the videos I rented when it wasn't possible to see it during the day.
So I come to this not as a Dark Shadows purist nor as a person who really "likes" Tim Burton movies anymore. Maybe that's why I enjoyed the film, even if it is a mess for long stretches.
The prologue, with narration from Barnabas (Johnny Depp) explaining the Collins family journey from Liverpool to America in the late 1700s, has an appropriately Gothic sensibility and efficiently explains the tragedy of the "cursed" founders of Collinsworth. Barnabas chooses Josette DuPres (Bella Heathcote) over servant Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), who is also a witch. She lures Josette to her death and transforms Barnabas into a vampire before bringing the townspeople to Collinwood Manor and burying him alive. So far, so good.
But then we jump ahead to 1972, where Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcoate) arrives at the dilapidated Collinwood Manor to serve as the new governess to David Collins (Gulliver McGrath). She meets what's left of the family: matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), her daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz), David's father Roger Collins (Johnny Lee Miller), live-in psychologist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), and caretaker Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley). Oh, and thanks to some construction nearby, the freshly awakened Barnabas Collins.
I appreciate the fact that the advertisements playing up the "fish out of water" jokes of an 18th century vampire in the 1970s don't dominate the film, because most of the ones in Dark Shadows don't really work. Aside from Barnabas' fascination with Carolyn's lava lamp, gags about keyboards and television or not understanding that Alice Cooper (Alice Cooper) isn't a woman don't really connect. Maybe it plays with some audiences but not so much with the Cap'n, but like I said, the trailers used pretty much every joke that's in the movie and it isn't what most of Dark Shadows is about.
Instead, Dark Shadows occupies most of its time with Barnabas' devotion to family and to restoring the Collins name in the small fishing town, even if it means hypnotizing fishermen (including Christopher Lee) into breaking their deal with Angel Bay Fishery. Now in direct competition, Angel Bay's owner demands to meet with Barnabas and he comes face to face with the seemingly ageless Angelique, who it would seem is still a little hot for her spurned (spurning?) lover. Things get complicated when Barnabas takes a shining to Victoria, who bears a striking resemblance to Josette, much to Angelique's dismay.
Dark Shadows doesn't have a large cast, necessarily, but it may still be too large for what amounts to a nine person ensemble. Victoria disappears for stretches of the film because there's simply nothing for her to do, and Johnny Lee Miller's Roger never figures into the film in any meaningful way. When Barnabas gives him an ultimatum and he chooses to leave, it's a hollow moment because Roger never amounted to anything in the story. Helena Bonham Carter fares a little better as Dr. Hoffman, but her sudden removal from the narrative only seems to happen in order to set up a sequel.
Chloë Grace Moretz's Carolyn serves exactly two purposes in the film: one is to provide the 70s soundtrack to Collinwood Manor and the other is an arbitrary plot twist in the last act to justify her being around during the climactic battle between Angelique and the Collins family. Pfeiffer and Haley are at least somewhat memorable with broad characters and dramatic posing, but Dark Shadows is really about Eva Green and Johnny Depp, who go all out with their bizarro versions of "witch" and "vampire."
Barnabas is so devoted to being a gentleman that he apologizes to people before killing them (in a moment that made me laugh, he informs a group of hippies that he "deeply regrets" the fact he's going to slaughter them) and is fiercely loyal to his "distant" relatives. After last year's Pirates of the Caribbean, I was worried he might sleep walk through another performance or go too weird like Willy Wonka, but Depp's Barnabas Collins is a monster trying to be a man. It may not be on the level of the Ed's (Wood and Scissorhands) but he isn't so far over the top that it borders on caricature.
Eva Green has a tougher role to play: Angelique is a powerful witch that really only wants Barnabas to love her, and when he continually refuses she lashes out, even when it's clear she doesn't really want to do it. Her conflicted relationship with the monster she created gives Green the ability to be more than just the villain of the film. While the Angelique / Barnabas "sex" scene isn't really funny or titillating (and clearly it's meant to be both at different points), they do manage to destroy her office while a Barry White song plays. That cue at least makes more sense than the lengthy "happening" that Barnabas throws for the town, including Alice Cooper performing live for no good reason.
In the end I guess I was pleasantly surprised that Tim Burton at least seemed to be interested in Dark Shadows. After the detached, lifeless Alice in Wonderland it really seemed like he didn't always care about the movies he was making, at least since Planet of the Apes, so to have nice flourishes in Dark Shadows like Angelique's skin cracking like china near the end were welcome. I don't know that I'm going to be in a hurry to put on Dark Shadows when it comes out on DVD, but I didn't mind watching it. I chuckled a few times and was able to overlook the meandering parts in the middle. It may not be a return to form for Tim Burton but there's some fun to be had and every now and then a glimmer of the good old days. Sometimes that'll do.
* I also had (maybe still have) a VHS copy of Scariest Moments from Dark Shadows. It's a montage of scenes that, in context, might be "scary" but in this edited format with no clear idea of what's happening is just silly. Mostly it's the reveal of some kind of monster and someone gasping, which really doesn't have the desired effect of being scary to anyone.