|Barnabas Collins (Johhny Depp) in Dark Shadows.|
By Don Simpson
Way back in the mid-1770s, Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) -- master of Collinwood Manor -- falls in love with Josette (Bella Heathcote), thus shattering the heart of his voluptuous chambermaid, Angelique (Eva Green). Unfortunately for Barnabas, the scorned woman is a real bitch of a witch. In retaliation, Angelique turns Barnabas into a vampire and buries him alive (well, technically undead).
Just shy of two centuries later, Barnabas is freed from his tomb and unleashed upon the strange glam rock world of the 1970s. The Collinwood Manor is horribly dilapidated and the remaining Collins family have fallen into financial ruin. Barnabas makes it his primary goal to help the family matriarch, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), restore the economic vitality of the Collins name. In the meantime, Barnabas falls in love with Victoria (Heathcote, again) -- who looks a heck of a lot like Josette -- and must once again face the jealous wrath of Angelique, who is known in this century as Angie.
Dark Shadows is director Tim Burton’s eighth collaboration with Johnny Depp (Edward Scissorhands; Sleepy Hollow; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street; etc). While most critics cite Alice in Wonderland as their low point, I would save that distinction for the Dark Shadows because despite their supposed interest in making this film, the duo seem to have not expended any effort on the story at all. Rather than developing a more reverent film, Dark Shadows is a mockery of the source 1960s television series -- turning a serious and subtle evening soap opera into a mindless spoof. In the television series, Jonathan Frid’s restrained portrayal of Barnabas is what adds an air of creepiness to the show. Depp, however, decides to play Barnabas with a level of camp that is rivaled only by his role as Captain Jack Sparrow in The Pirates of Caribbean franchise. In Depp’s hands, Barnabas is nothing more than a buffoonish clown -- no thanks to the embarrassing immaturity of Seth Grahame-Smith’s screenplay -- who recites one ridiculous line after another. Considering the infantile intellectual level of some of the sight gags, I can only imagine that Dark Shadows was written for a pre-pubescent audience. This also explains why Burton chose to go with absolutely no plot, opting for a two-note joke: Look at the silly vampire! Listen to what the silly vampire is saying!
Despite being Barnabas’ object of desire, Victoria disappears from the story for long stretches of time, yet somehow we are supposed to accept that Barnabas loves her. Allusions of her connection to Barnabas’ first love are dropped almost immediately, as if Burton and Grahame-Smith could not wrap their heads around such a “complex” concept. As with Angie -- who is purely a sex object -- Victoria’s purpose in Dark Shadows is merely a physical one. Another example is Chloë Grace Moretz’s seductive portrayal of Carolyn Stoddard, which is nothing more than a pedophile fantasy. Then, there is the live-in psychiatrist of Collinwood, Dr. Julia Hoffman (Burton's wife and regular performer Helena Bonham Carter), who is defined only by her alcoholism and cartoonishly colored hair. In Burton and Grahame-Smith’s hands, the women of Dark Shadows have no depth. They are only objects for us to see, but never know or understand.
However, the men of Dark Shadows do not fare much better. Elizabeth’s brother, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller) and his 10-year-old son, David Collins (Gully McGrath), get so little attention that I can only assume that they were only included to fill up some space in the mansion. Jackie Earle Haley -- who plays Willie Loomis, the caretaker of Collinwood -- is really the only actor who seems to be trying to do anything in this film.
Further exemplifying Burton’s favoritism of images over story or dialogue, he uses a vibrant 1970s color palate as a backdrop. One could only assume that Burton thought a 200-plus-year old vampire would blend in too much in any other decade, so he chose to set this story in the 1970s. This also allows Burton to pummel us into submission with a cheesy 1970s pop soundtrack, including a shameless cameo by “No More Mr. Nice Guy” himself, Alice Cooper!