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So many adjectives have been hurled at Tim Burton and Johnny Depp over the course of their eight-film, 22-year collaboration, from “tender” (Edward Scissorhands) and “campy” (Ed Wood) to “chilling” (Sleepy Hollow), “charming” (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and “macabre” (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street). Rarely have I thought to use the terms “unfocused” or “slapdash” before … though Dark Shadows earns them both.
Burton and his ghost-faced leading man have gone on record as stating Dark Shadows is a cheeky homage to Dan Curtis’ gothic soap opera, which they both enjoyed as children. The show aired on ABC from 1966 to ’71, and starred Jonathan Frid as vampire Barnabas Collins, ancestor to the Collins relatives residing in Collinsport, Maine.
A fantastic team of production designers updates the brooding appearance of Curtis’ chintzy soap and drops modern audience members into a pleasantly dystopian 1970s New England. That’s where Barnabas (Depp) – cursed to a life of bloodsucking in the 1760s – emerges from his coffin and seeks to reconcile his fractured bloodline.
You’ll need a scorecard. There’s Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), the current head of Collinwood Manor; creepy Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller); slutty goth Carolyn Stoddard (Chloe Moretz); and potentially haunted David Collins (Gulliver McGrath), who thinks he can communicate with his deceased mother.
And I’ve yet to mention Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), who’d like to pilfer Barnabas’ blood and become a creature of the night; Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), the saucer-eyed nanny who steals Barnabas’ heart; and Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), the witch who once cursed our hero and now competes with the Collins family for Maine’s cannery business.
If only one character managed to emerge from the pack. Burton’s film might be easy on the eyes, but the director can’t shrug off the episodic nature of the storytelling. As such, Dark Shadows plays out like the rough draft for a planned season of the TV series instead of a cohesive movie that stands on its own. Multiple plotlines are trotted out by Burton’s four credited screenwriters, each utilizing Depp in the Dracula-inspired Collins garb, but the threads have no chance of ever developing in a two-hour film.
Without a tangible storyline to follow, Burton can’t decipher the film’s tone. Dark Shadows isn’t the broad comedy commercials make it out to be (the fish-out-of-water jokes are better suited for an Austin Powers sequel), nor is it a memorable horror story despite the presence of ghosts, vampires, a witch, a werewolf and Alice Cooper in a straightjacket. Dark Shadows falls back on the visual cues Burton has been refining all of his career, but instead of fashioning them into something fresh and new, he constructs a colorful yet empty Big Top to house yet another collection of circus oddities that are presided over by one of Depp’s traditional ringleaders.
“You’ll have to imagine us on a better day,” Pfeiffer purrs to Depp after he first steps into the declining Collinwood and inquires about the state of his family. Sadly, fans of Depp and Burton’s previous collaborations will have to imagine this creative duo on a better day, as well.
Sean O'Connell is a nationally recognized film journalist who has been covering the industry since 1998. He's a Senior Film Critic for AMC's FilmCritic.com, part of the AMC TV network, and a regular reviewer for The Washington Post. Sean writes on a daily basis for CinemaBlend.com, Movies.com, ScreenCrush.com and Fandango's movie blog, Freshly Popped. He has served as the East Coast Bureau Chief for HollywoodNews.com, where he ran the site's popular Awards Alley, a year-round column dedicated to the Oscar race. Sean began his career at USA Today, where he contributed to the LIFE section's online site. He spent seven years as the Arts & Entertainment Editor for the Carolina Weekly Newspaper Group, managing the movie sections for seven community newspapers. He is a longstanding member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS), and the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA).