Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce
Seldom does a preview really do a bad movie justice. Remember those unappealing trailers for last summer’s campy remake of the classic ‘70s cult soap opera, Dark Shadows? Well, they kind of nailed it. It’s not actually as gaudy and silly as the ads made it out to be, but it is fairly boring, one actor turned in the worst performance of a career, and it runs out of plot about 30 minutes in.
But those first 30 minutes! They are so, so very watchable. Tim Burton & Co. absolutely nailed the period gothic revival flair, calling to mind films like Burnt Offerings and anything written by Shirley Jackson. The mood is perfectly set by a marvelous flashback sequence to the 18th century and the founding of the Collins family fortunes—and misfortunes. When wealthy Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) rejects his housemaid Angelique’s (Eva Green, The Golden Compass, Casino Royale) advances in favor of a more suitable mate (Bella Heathcote), Angelique reveals her witchier side, luring Heathcote’s Josette to her death and somehow cursing Barnabas into a vampire, then leaving him locked in a coffin for the next 200 years. This segment beautifully launches the film, which jumps ahead to the “present” (1972) and a mysterious young woman (also Heathcote) alone on a train—practicing her interview, and her alias, for a post as governess at the Collins manor house.
The world of Dark Shadows is haunting, creepy, and just slightly askew, a perfect “recreation” of a 1970s vision of 18th century architecture and decor. There’s something oversized and gaudy about it all, and it just works. So, too, does the gothic setup: governess “Vicky’s” first awkward dinner with the dysfunctional Collins family is drawn straight from Shirley Jackson, and the family backstories are compelling—a troubled boy, convinced his drowned mother still speaks to him; the curious alcoholic psychoanalyst (Helena Bonham Carter, in a strange role); the matriarch determined to hold the crumbling family together (Michelle Pfeiffer, Stardust, Wolf, Batman Returns); the distant and disinterested brother-in-law (Jonny Lee Miller, Plunkett & Macleane, Emma); the bored teenage daughter Carolyn (a well-cast Chloe “Hit Girl” Moretz). It’s a fantastic setup, both for a classic gothic story, and for the campy send-up that Dark Shadows is supposed to be. Unfortunately, it never quite develops into either.
Depp, as always, is entertaining as the repressed, vampiric Barnabas, thrust into a modern world he doesn’t quite get the hang of, and there are some amusing fish-out-of-water scenes (such as when he seeks courtship advice from niece Carolyn, or encounters a group of young hippies). But the story Barnabas falls into is less interesting, and it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to become. Evil ex-lover Angelique is also in modern-day Collinsport, now reveling in the Collins’s poverty while running the town’s fishing industry, but she’s never given a chance to be appropriately menacing, with the script focusing on Barnabas’s frustrating ambivalent feelings toward the woman who cursed him. It should make for great sexual and suspensful tension—even some over-the-top soapy moments—but it’s actually rather a bland story, far less interesting than whatever secrets lurk back with the Collins family. Alas, those are never well-explored, either, leaving enticing moments of Vicky haunted by her ghostly doppleganger feeling unfulfilled; and the mystery of the young Collins heir’s troubling delusions is resolved somewhat as an afterthought.
Ultimately, Dark Shadows starts off with wonderful promise but loses steam early and lumbers to an uninspired close, with some entertaining and visually stunning moments along the way. A strong supporting cast, including Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen) as caretaker Willie Loomis, and an obligatory cameo from the classic ghoul actor emeritus himself, Christopher Lee, and the gags along the way can’t pull the film up to Burton’s or Depp’s usual standards—but it definitely has its moments.