Dark Shadows marks the eighth collaboration between Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. That’s right: the eighth. It’s been a fruitful series of collaborations, at least financially. Creatively…well, let’s just say that the law of diminishing returns has largely plagued the pair. With the exception of Sweeney Todd, which had the benefit of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, their recent works have been visually stunning and well-acted, but short on story. It’s unfortunate because Burton once was able to provide new and unique stories to Hollywood.
Dark Shadows does little to change the streak. Loosely adapted from the classic soap opera of the same name, the film follows Barnabas Collins (Depp), a vampire who is unleashed on the world of the 1970s after being buried for two centuries. He takes up residence in his former home, where his descendants – made up of matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her daughter Carolyn (Chloë Moretz), brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), and his son David (Gulliver McGrath) – are past the point of any social relevance they held centuries earlier. Barnabas sets out to restore the family’s honor, while combating Angelique (Eva Green), the witch who turned him into a vampire, and connecting with Victoria (Bella Heathcote), the children’s governess who reminds Barnabas of his lost love, Josette.
Tonally, the film shifts between comedy and melodrama. The comedy comes easily – the mere concept of a vampire from the 1770s making his way in the 1970s inspires a number of laughs, and Depp is more than capable of playing Barnabas as someone who’s genuinely out of his time. The majority of Depp’s interactions with the family – along with the manor’s caretaker, Willie (Jackie Earle Haley) and David’s psychiatrist, Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) – fall into this category and provide solid, occasionally spectacular, laughs.
More problematic are the less comedic portions. The conflict with Angelique lacks any bite, pardon the pun. Depp and Green play well enough off of each other, but the actual storyline doesn’t fit well with the more comedic portions of the movie. It’s not horrible; it’s just…off. Meanwhile, the chemistry between Barnabas and Victoria feels forced, with Depp and Heathcote lacking any semblance of a spark. It doesn’t help that this storyline is buried for large portions of the film, making each resurfacing of the plot feel out of step with the rest of the film.
From a visual standpoint, it’s Burton at his best. Burton is a master at working with creepier settings, and Dark Shadows is among the best work he’s done in this regard in years.
As for casting, the film is largely spot-on. Besides Depp, the women in the film tend to be the stronger players, with Green and Moretz having the most fun with their roles. Only Heathcote seems like a case of miscasting. Her presence isn’t strong enough to work with Depp in their scenes together, and that makes up for the bulk of her scenes as the film progresses.
Dark Shadows isn’t a completely worthless movie. It works for audiences looking for a laugh, particularly those determined to go to a theater who don’t want to see The Avengers. If you’re really in the mood for a Tim Burton and/or Johnny Depp film, though, there are other, better options available. Start there.