‘Dark Shadows’ Review
Great cast overshadowed by a weak, unfocused script.
It’s bound to happen. For every success, you have a misstep. And after seven successful collaborations with Johnny Depp, Tim Burton has finally delivered on one. ‘Dark Shadows’ boasts an excellent ensemble cast and slick visuals in signature Burton style. It even has quite a few memorable moments. But all these efforts are let down by a script that lacks momentum, a consistent tone, and has no idea what it wants to be.
In the town of Collinsport, living a lavish life in the massive Collinwood Manor, Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) aims to seek revenge for the death of his parents from an evil witch ex-lover (Eva Green). But she puts a curse upon him and his lover, turning him into a vampire and imprisoning him in a coffin for 200 years. Waking up in the 1970’s as a blood-thirsty vampire, he returns to Collinwood Manor to live with his dysfunctional new Collins family who don’t take to his return very well. But he realises that the witch is well and alive and may once again try to stop Barnabus from finding true love.
At first thought, ‘Dark Shadows’ is perfect material for director Tim Burton. It has all the dark gothic tones that he is already familiar with and the plot directly evokes memories of his previous dark effort ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ which is an excellent film and the best musical I’ve ever seen. But ‘Dark Shadows’ is an example of what ‘Sweeney Todd’ could have been if it had gone wrong during the screenplay stage itself. Because while ‘Sweeney Todd’ had a primary focus in its plot – Todd seeking revenge for the death of his wife – ‘Dark Shadows’ is seemingly about that but then goes into a hundred different tangents with no consistency to speak of.
The film starts off with a strangely abbreviated voiceover narration that sums up the entire backstory of the movie in a matter of five minutes, not giving you enough time to connect with the characters well enough. Just after that, we switch protagonists to the re-incarnated Victoria in the 70’s as we are introduced to the Collins family. While all of this was dark and serious, the movie strangely shifts into physical campy humor with numerous fish out of the water jokes as Barnabus is resurrected as he struggles to adapt to the modern world. The tone here is jarringly different and tries to appeal to a mass audience. While it goes against the feel of the source material since it stands out like a sore thumb, everything else in the movie is so mediocre that these actually end up being the memorable bits of the movie. But then comes random bouts of quite violent and gory sequences where Barnabus goes out to kill random humans and they suddenly take you out of the quirky humorous tone that preceded it. The movie can never decide what genre it wants to primarily be and this constant juggling act leads to a mess of a film for the most part.
Even the plot itself has many issues, since there is literally no forward momentum in the screenplay. Yes, Barnabus has returned to the family and wants to avenge for his curse. But at the same time, we have this large ensemble family that he caters to. Each character is given enough screen-time, yet the script never develops them above face value. None of the characters are more than caricatures of themselves, which is why the overblown finale and some twists about the characters doesn’t make sense nor do you care. And there are bloated subplots that constantly keep the film unfocused including Barnabus and the witch re-uniting, his love for the re-incarnated Victoria, running the family business, adapting to the modern world and a whole lot of that. In the end, it leads to the audience getting bored way before the film comes to an end and it’s truly a shame because ‘Dark Shadows’ had all the potential to be a classic.
That’s not to say that there are moments that you won’t enjoy, because an excellent cast makes sure to elevate above the material they’ve been given. Johnny Depp is excellent as Barnabus Collins and is the only thing that keeps the film alive at times when it’s failing in terms of script. His unique sense of humor works well during those above mentioned comic moments while he also has the intensity to provide depth to those darker moments. You just wish he had been given something stronger to do. Actors like Michelle Pfieifer and Chloe Moretz do a good job with their characters that are terribly underwitten. Even Tim Burton’s regular Helena Bonham Carter feels underused. But a mention goes to the beautiful Eva Green who plays an excellent and quirky villain and does full justice to her role, making the film more enjoyable in the process. Beautiful visuals are something that Burton always thrives in and definitely delivers in that regard, but we’ve come to expect more from the director than just eye candy.
‘Dark Shadows’ is a missed opportunity for a classic thanks to a screenplay that never focuses on what it should and can’t settle on a consistent tone for itself. Despite the efforts of the cast and suitably slick visuals by Tim Burton, it’s a failed effort at a gothic blockbuster and will be remembered as such.