Dark Shadows hits Australian cinemas May 10.
Dark Shadows is the latest incarnation of the 1966-1971 gothic soap opera of the same name (the other incarnation being a short-lived re-imagining of the TV show in 1991). The film marks the 8th project that director Tim Burton and actor/producer Johnny Depp have worked on together. As such, fans of the pair may be pleased with their latest effort, but the rest of us might find it hard to distinguish from their earlier films.
Set in small town coastal America in the early 1970s, Depp stars as Barnabas Collins, a vampire who has been locked in a coffin for over 200 years, and who is freed when his coffin is dug up during the construction of a new McDonalds. Barnabas wasn’t always a vampire - he was a member of the once-prominent Collins family that created the town of Collinsport as the result of the growth of their fishing business. He was turned into a vampire by one of his family’s maids, Angelique (Eva Green), who happened to be a witch. Angelique killed Barnabas’s family and cursed him to be a vampire when she realised that he did not return her love.
When Barnabas returns to the world he finds four living Collins family members inhabiting the sprawling gothic mansion that his family spent 15 years building all those years ago. Elizabeth Collins-Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) is the lady of the house; her daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a stereotypically moody teenager; Elizabeth’s brother Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller) is a bit of a flake; and his son David (Gulliver McGrath) is an introvert who claims to talk to the ghost of his dead mother. They are joined by David’s alcoholic live-in psychiatrist (played in typical Tim Burton fashion by Helena Bonham Carter), a couple of servants, and a newly arrived doe-eyed governess called Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), who instantly catches the eye of the newly-awakened Barnabas.
The film takes a long time to set this all up, and as a result it’s not until the half-way mark of the rather long 113 minute runtime that we get a sense of what the film is actually about. Barnabas wants to reclaim his family’s fortune and rightful place as the key family in the small town. This has been taken by the witch Angelique, who in his absence has taken over the fishing industry and cemented herself as the centre of the community. Barnabas also falls for Victoria, much to the chagrin of Angelique, who still holds a flame for him. Angelique isn’t happy about this development and is willing to do anything to stop Barnabas being with anyone except her. If this plot description sounds a bit weak, it’s because there just isn’t much of a plot or story to talk about. There is no real driving-force or forward movement in the film, and for the most part it just meanders along at a sedate pace without anything of any significance happening. Most of the film’s energy is in the final 15 minutes, and by that time you really don’t care what the point of the film was anyway.
The humour in this film rests almost solely on the "fish out of water" situation/gag. Barnabas has been in a coffin for 200 years, so naturally he has no idea what a TV or a car is. While watching him adjust to life is initially amusing, it gets old very quickly. There are only so many times "what is this devil's magic?" is funny. Barnabas’s odd appearance is also a source of humour. Depp does pull off the quirky vampire character very well, and seeing such an odd creature in an everyday setting is a fun juxtaposition.
Music plays a large role in this film, and it is the glue that holds the transparently thin story together. 70s rock from the likes of The Carpenters, Iggy Pop, and The Moody Blues blasts in many of the scenes. Carolyn the moody teen is particularly obsessed with the music of the era. Her walls are covered in rock posters and she is constantly listening to her walkman, or blasting records and dancing around the house. While the music does add energy and is quite fun, it's very obvious that the music is being used to disguise the fact that basically nothing is happening. An extended cameo from Alice Cooper adds absolutely nothing to the story, but hey - look there's Alice Cooper guys, and he is playing more than one of his hits!
The film does look very slick, and has all the hallmarks of Burton’s previous films. The colour-palate is a mesh of the brightness of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the gloomy gothic colours of Sleepy Hollow. Even the make-up and costumes have the feel of Burton’s previous films. Although it is executed very well, it feels like we have seen it all before. The house and its interesting characteristics is the strongest feature of the film – it was fun to explore the house with the characters and discover its secrets and intricacies.
Ultimately, Dark Shadows is a series of montages glued together by 70s rock music - the little story that exists is dull, and for all intensive purposes Depp could be playing almost any of the crazy Burton characters he is known for; in fact at this point the Burton-Depp films are starting to become indistinguishable from each other. While there are moments of creativity and uniqueness, it is just more of the same. I can’t recommend this film to anyone except die-hard fans of the pair’s previous work, and even then I do so with reservations.
Rating: ★★ (C-)