Dark Shadows, starring a deadpan Johnny Depp, is inspired from a 1960s to 1970s quirky cult American television soap of the same name, which was in turn inspired from films made by Hammer Film Productions—the makers of Dracula and Frankenstein.
In theory, it sounds ideal for a successful eighth venture of duo Depp and Tim Burton, known for their love of visually gothic and equally eccentric macabre stories. But alas, Dark Shadow turns out very much like Johnny Depp’s make-up—a superficial merry-go-round ride that is fun for a few seconds and then just runs around pointlessly in circles.
Dark Shadows starts with Johnny Depp’s narrative, framing it in a manner similar to the scene set in the smoky pier in the film Sweeny Todd. He tells us the story of Barnabas Collins’ life. It is about his family coming to a newfound land called America circa 1700, where they set up business and achieve prosperity. When he grows up into a placid looking youth, his slave girl Angelique (Eva Green) confesses her undying love to him.
With the class difference high in those days—and the fact that he felt she was a passing fling—she is rejected. Scorned and set on revenge she sees Barnabas falling for Josette du Pres (Bella Heathcote). But Angelique is well equipped to handle competition—secretly being a witch and all. So Victoria goes off the cliff dead, closely followed by Barnabas. But he doesn’t die, because Angelique curses him into a vampire. Now chalk-white with coal-black bags around his eyes, Barnabas has elongated dark nails attached to fingers that move like a spider would on its web. But it doesn’t stop there. As in any generic vampire film, Angelique rouses up the villagers and chains Barnabas inside a coffin and buries him for the next 200 years.
Jump to the 70’s—the time of rock music and free love. Barnabas is accidently set free by a group of construction workers. The first thing he feels—after feasting on the people who helped him out—is the radical culture shock: girls in short skirts, lights, satanic vehicles on weird concrete roads. Shaken, he heads to Collins Manor.
There he settles in with the present Collins-es, headed by a tad flimsy but strong-willed Elizabeth Collins (Michelle Pfeiffer), her useless brother Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller), an angst-ridden hippie like teenage-daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz), and Roger’s son David (Gully McGrath) who sees his mother’s ghost. The family rounds out with Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley), the drunkard caretaker, who is soon mesmerised to become Igor by Barnabas. There is also Dr Julia (Helena Bonham Carter)—a drunkard Psychiatrist for David—and a new governess Victoria Winters, who looks exactly like Josette.
Barnabas sets to restore the dilapidated manor and the business back to their glory days. But with Angelique still around (it turns out that the witch is immortal), things get more complicated than one thought.
The humor in Dark Shadow is dry with a typical Tim Burton mirth. Its hero, Barnabas, also their trademark typical, is cadaverous-looking. He has a high aptitude on the morbid and even higher one for living—he doesn’t let being undead get in the way of life. Barnabas—who won’t sleep during daylight hours, like a Vampire should—moves around the shadows of the manor (and the streets, under an umbrella), avoiding the spill of the sunlight.
While it may sound good enough, the problem with Dark Shadows is, as it was with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland, that there isn’t much to like apart from Depp’s idiosyncrasies. The story by John August and the screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), let’s the plot loose its steam as soon as Barnabas hits the 70’s. The writing suddenly gets too lazy, while Depp and Burton became too busy enjoying themselves to pump life into it.
Too many situations looked the same with Barnabas running back and forth between family and Angelique. By the end one was too dizzy and light in the head from all of it to care how it ends (the climatic-standoff is a half-willed version out of Robert Zemeckis’ Death Becomes Her.
Although weird, quirky and sometimes ghoulish, Dark Shadows sure isn’t Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow or Sweeny Todd. Released by Warner Bros, Dark Shadows is rated PG-13 for deadpan humor and sensuality.