PLOT: Imprisoned in a coffin for 200 years by a witch who cursed him to immortal life as a vampire, recently-revived Barnabas Collins comes to learn his family business is in shambles and the world as he knew it has changed drastically.
REVIEW: It's telling that the funniest moments in DARK SHADOWS come courtesy of centuries-old vampire Barnabas Collins' (Johnny Depp) inability to fathom that someone named “Alice Cooper” is a man. Because his name is “Alice,” you see. What an ugly woman!
That's the level Tim Burton's latest film is working on. An amiable but plotless and surprisingly lazy comedy that takes its inspiration from the 70s soap opera of the same name, DARK SHADOWS has been Burton and Depp's pet project for a number of years, so it's quite disappointing to discover that the movie is so content to be as inoffensive and conservative as possible.
After being cursed to live as a vampire by spurned lover/witch Angelique (Eva Green) and condemned to 200 years of inside of a coffin, Barnabas Collins, scion of a New England fishing magnate, breaks out in 1972 to find his family business is crumbling thanks to disinterested relatives (Michelle Pfeiffer and Jonny Lee Miller) and vicious competition. Said competition just happens to be “Angie,” the very witch who sentenced him to his horrible fate and whose mission it is to see that the Collins clan finds itself in ruins. Having been taught by his father that family is everything, Barnabas devotes himself to repairing the good Collins name while trying to figure out the funky 70s and fighting the urge to sate his bloodlust. But the biggest roadblock will be his undeniable attraction to Angie, whom he hates as much as he covets.
Burton seems like a perfect fit for this material, his well-known penchant for macabre subject matter and lovably demented outsiders makes him a natural choice to give Barnabas and co. revitalized life. But Burton phones it in here, allowing Depp to do his thing while more or less observing the events with an ambivalent eye. The set-up cries out for a gleeful eccentricity, but that spark is missing. The Burton who made BEETLEJUICE and ED WOOD would have had a lot of fun with this opportunity, but we find the director in a most blasé mood. Perhaps years of developing DARK SHADOWS sapped Burton of his passion for the project; not since PLANET OF THE APES has he made a movie with such little vigor.
The blame doesn't fall solely with Burton, however. The fact that he's working with a frankly uninspired screenplay certainly does not help. The script, by ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER author Seth Grahame-Smith, is a ho-hum concoction, filled with predictable fish-out-of-water jokes and a seriously underwhelming narrative thrust: the saga of the Collins family business is practically irrelevant, and a love story between Barnabas and the family's new governess (and reincarnation of his past love) Victoria (Bella Heathcote) is barely developed, leaving us with a repetitive series of encounters between Barnabas and his foe/lover Angie (she declares her lust for him, he wrestles feelings of revulsion and arousal, repeat). Grahame-Smith, who forged such a intriguing alternate world in his VAMPIRE HUNTER book (and, presumably, in the subsequent screenplay for the film, which comes out next month), doesn't even go the soap opera route of the original TV show, which might have made things more juicy and dramatic, instead adopting a friendly, harmless tone of something along the lines of THE ADDAMS FAMILY. (Although, truth be told, that movie is far more entertaining.)
Since a strong plot is obviously not in DARK SHADOWS' interest, it's clear that the story is indeed going to rely on a series of sequences where Barnabas finds himself out of his element in this strange new world. But why doesn't it take more advantage of just how wild the 70s were? The politics and revolutionary attitude of the era are just about ignored in favor of simple gags where Barnabas is confronted by some modern convenience. There's such a lack of interest in exploring the possibilities that it's shocking; is it really so hilarious that Barnabas is weirded out by a television set, or can't wrap his head around the idea of a female doctor?
The cast can't be faulted, although other than Depp – who brings his usual quirks and theatricality to the table – most of the actors haven't much to work with. Pfeiffer and Miller have fun chewing the scenery a bit, but again, there's nothing substantial for them to actually do, and the Collins clan overall – which also includes teenaged hippy-in-the-making Carolyn (Chloe Moretz) and disturbed youngster David (Gully McGrath) - is a decidedly bland group. Helena Bonham-Carter has a rather thankless role as a boozy psychiatrist who lives with the family, but everything involving her comes off as forced.
If there's a stand-out, it's Eva Green, who goes wickedly over-the-top with her mean-spirited seductress. A genuinely gorgeous screen presence, Green spices up the role with a crazy-eyed energy that the movie desperately needs... It's just too bad that the folks behind the camera weren't nearly as spirited.