Like so many features from director Tim Burton, Dark Shadows looks better than it plays. A film revival of the cult-fave, gothic horror daytime soap opera that ran on ABC from 1966 to 1971, this is fruitful source material for Burton, who often feels more at home with macabre comedies (Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd, Ed Wood) than with the more pastel material he sometimes favors (Alice in Wonderland, Big Fish, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory).
Here, regular Burton leading man Johnny Depp — a producer on the film and lifelong Dark Shadows disciple — is Barnabas Collins, a scion of New England aristocracy who is turned into a vampire by scorned servant/lover/secret witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) in 1776 and then locked away in a buried coffin. Nearly two hundred years later, in groovy 1972, Barnabas is accidentally released and awakens to find the Collins clan in decline, a stray handful of ancestors — including faded-flower matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her willful daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz) — living unhappily on the final remnants of the family's fortune. Meanwhile, Angelique remains, ageless, now reigning over the coastal fishing industry that once built the Collins' family wealth.
I've often found Burton more of a conceptualist and art director than a storyteller, and the half-successful Dark Shadows only underscores that take. Dark Shadows is great to look at. The primary location, Collinwood, the family's mammoth castle-like estate, is an opulent, ghostly monument to old power in decay, presided over by Pfeiffer's compellingly ravaged beauty. Depp and Green are striking foils: sexy and comic and charismatic. Jackie Earle Haley is perfect as the spooky, drunkard manservant Willie Loomis.
But if the mise-en-scène, casting, and characterizations are strong, they don't add up to enough. I found myself struggling to maintain interest in Dark Shadows' story as the film wore on. Maybe Burton did too, as side plots — like that of mysterious governess Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcoate) — get lost for too long and a climactic conflagration seems like a stand-in for a lack of more satisfying story-driven closure.
The tone here seems to be more intentionally and overtly comic than the campy original series, with most of the humor deriving from fish-out-of-water scenarios that play on the simultaneous sense of 1970s oddness shared by Depp's colonial-era Barnabas and a modern audience that may or may not have firsthand experience with the era.
This aspect of the film yields laughs and makes for a nice spooky-rock soundtrack ("Season of the Witch," "Nights in White Satin"), but it could be handled more deftly. The combination of old-money decay and '70s cultural talismans evokes Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums, but Burton's take on this material is more jokey and less felt, with clunky gags about Love Story and macramé and the cheap celebrity placement of using the old, corny, current Alice Cooper to play himself as '70s hard-rock/glam-rocker bandleader Alice Cooper, a decision that shakes the film out of its period rather than adding authenticity.
Opening Friday, May 11th