Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows has an insurmountable hurdle to overcome. An adaptation of a kitschy 60s/70s TV show, simultaneously beloved by millions and yet unfamiliar to millions of others, how does Burton go about the big screen version? In short, he tries to appease both camps, both playing the material straight for the fans and sending it up for laughs to keep the uninitiated happy. On paper, Burton gets credit for attempting to balance both sides, but the movie itself is a mess.
A quick search on YouTube brings up a multitude of clips from Dan Curtis’ original series. Even if you’re not familiar with it, the show’s odd blend of wobbly sets and hammy acting combined with a relentlessly morbid tone becomes apparent quite easily, and at first, it seems like Burton will channel his film version in the same way (albeit with much more expensive production values).
Burton soul-mate Johnny Depp stars as Barnabas Collins, a wealthy playboy whose family left Liverpool to establish a fishing empire named Collinsport on the coast of New England. However, when Barnabas makes a mistake of spurning the advances of beautiful witch Angelique (Eva Green), she murders his parents, leads his true love Josette (Bella Heathcote) to suicide and curses him to be a vampire.
The local townsfolk bury him in a coffin where he remains for 200 years, until he is unearthed in 1972 by construction workers. Fast making a meal of them, he is confronted by the glowing yellow M of Mephistopheles – aka McDonalds – and faces down the orbs of Lucifer himself, which turns out to be a speeding car.
Returning to his ancestral home of Collinwood, now a decrepit, stately pile in the finest Burton fashion, he is confronted by his descendants, whose own fishing business is suffering in the form of competition from Angelique, still alive and kicking in the town. Barnabas vows to restore the family name, but that’s tricky in the confusing landscape of 20th century America (transfixed by a lava lamp, he describes it as a ‘pulsating blood urn’).
The first 25 minutes are undoubtedly the film’s strongest, with Burton honing a moody Gothic atmosphere in the manner of his past hits. In particular, the opening prologue promises a ripe, meaty tale of vampires, vengeance and love across the centuries in the manner of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The performances seem to be played with just the right amount of self-awareness (Michelle Pfeiffer as matriarch Elizabeth is a standout) and as expected, the production values are terrific (design by Rick Heinrichs; costumes by Colleen Atwood; score by Danny Elfman).
But it very quickly becomes apparent that this is a movie in competition with itself. For every moment revelling in secret passageways, cavernous interiors and the booming sonorities of Depp’s voice, the drama is undercut by increasingly crass fish out of water gags and aerial sex scenes. It indicates that Burton has no idea who his film is aimed at: those fans of the TV series who want the campy material played straight, or those who couldn’t care less and just want a bit of comedy?
Sadly, by veering between the two poles, the director satisfies no-one. Moments of death are treated in arbitrary, almost callous fashion while in the next scene Barnabas is confusing the gender of Alice Cooper (‘Ugliest woman I’ve ever seen’). Meanwhile a promising subplot involving the family’s new nanny (Heathcote again) who bears a striking resemblance to Barnabas’ long lost love never hoves into view effectively.
There are more fundamental problems, notably in the shape of the excellent supporting cast who are left high and dry with very little to do (Chloe Moretz as the moody daughter; Johnny Lee Miller as Pfeiffer’s philandering brother; Helena Bonham Carter as the sozzled live-in shrink), before it culminates in an effects-laden finale not unlike Jan de Bont’s remake of The Haunting.
However, it’s made watchable, if not acceptable, by Depp’s typically committed performance. Calling to mind Richard E Grant’s Withnail and I style imperiousness as much as Max Schreck, the actor has enormous fun with Collins’ anachronistic, fruity dialogue. On seeing Green’s witch for the first time in centuries, he booms: ‘Her mere mention summons vomit to the recesses of my mouth.’ It’s just a shame that he appears to be over-achieving in contrast with the movie’s failings.
One thing that must be said in the film’s favour, however, is it’s more recognizably Burton-esque than his previous abomination, Alice in Wonderland. That experience was akin to watching an effects designer’s showreel for the best part of two hours; Dark Shadows is, at least, an eccentric misfire that bears fleeting hallmarks of Burton’s best work. It sure isn’t up there with the likes of Ed Wood, but as an odd, messy experience, it’s better than a boring, hackneyed one. In the immortal words of Yazz, the only way is up.