The Tim Burton/Johnny Depp team is starting to feel a bit tired. Don’t get me wrong, Dark Shadows is a lot of fun, but the word “shadow” in the title is all too apt. This movie is a mere shadow of the pairings better outings.
Dark Shadows is based on the 1960-70s gothic soap opera of the same name. I’ve never seen this show, but knowing what I do about soap operas I’d wager a guess that it probably took itself more seriously than this movie does. Playing the supernatural premise for laughs isn’t the problem, there are some genuinely funny lines and visual gags here. The problem lies in the fact that the movie can’t seem to decide what it is. It bounces back-and-forth between comedy and drama, with bits of horror thrown in. Usually Burton is brilliant at this sort of genre blending (Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Sweeney Todd), but for whatever reason the mix in Dark Shadows is more of a mess than anything.
The acting is over-the-top at times, but I think that was the point. This was based on a melodrama, after all, so I’m assuming the actors were encouraged to ham it up a bit. Johnny Depp is delightful as the stiff and serious vampire Barnabas Collins. This is the sort of quirky role Depp has perfected over the past couple decades, and while it certainly isn’t my favorite performance (Ed Wood), it isn’t bad. Helena Bonham Carter is also somewhat in her wheelhouse as an alcoholic psychiatrist. She so often plays oddball characters that it’s strange when she plays normal people. This is somewhere in the middle– somewhat eccentric but a far cry from most of her roles.
Rounding out the cast are Michelle Pfeiffer, Chloe Grace Moretz, Bella Heathcote, and Eva Green. Typing this it’s just occurred to me that most of the main cast is female, which is pretty cool. They all play widely different types of women– protective matriarch, sullen teenager, mysterious waif, manipulative witch– each with their own strengths and convictions. The characters may be a tad one dimensional, but that has more to do with the script than their performances. Again, it’s a melodrama at heart, but there’s also a lot going on here. Almost too much to fit into one movie (which is why a sequel was strongly hinted at in the finale, but I doubt one will ever be made).
The one glowing thing I can say about Dark Shadows is that it has an amazing soundtrack. It uses some of the best rock/pop hits of the 1970s to great effect. Only Burton could use music from Alice Cooper, Curtis Mayfield, Barry White, and The Carpenters in the same film and have it make perfect sense.
I don’t think anybody involved in this film will ever claim it is their best work, but I still found Dark Shadows very enjoyable. I have found myself getting quite tired of Johnny Depp’s weirdo schtick that he has perfected in the past decade, but in this role I thought the weird vibe he does so well really added to the out of time vampire he portrays. All of Depp’s recent roles (Willy Wokna, The Mad Hatter) just feel like he is impersonating Jack Sparrow. It feels stale after seeing it for the tenth time, but for this role, his kooky demeanour is great for the character. The supporting cast is also really solid. This is not a great film by any means, but there are laughs to be had.
The film is set in 1970s Maine, in a small fishing town called Collinsport. Depp stars as Barnabas Collins, a 200 year old vampire who is accidently reawakened. He sets out to find his family and stop the evil witch (Eva Green) that turned him into a vampire, and subsequently bankrupted his family’s fish company. Michelle Pfeiffer also stars as the Collins matriarch, Elizabeth. It’s ironic that Depp is playing a vampire in this film as I’m pretty sure Pfeiffer is one in real life. She still looks amazing in her mid-50s, and is great as the woman who keeps the dysfunctional Collins family together. Chloe Moretz plays Elizabeth’s teenage daughter, Caroline. She is great as the moody teenager that hates life and finds her newly arrived relative Barnabas difficult to deal with. I’m a big fan of Moretz, I’ve enjoyed nearly every movies she has made and I’m really eager to see what she does as an adult. I think she will be one of the few child actors to continue into adulthood. Jackie Earle Haley, Johnny Lee Miller, Bella Heathcote, Gulliver McGrath and Tim Burton staple, Helena Bonham Carter, fill out the rest of the Collins family. The family is a great ensemble cast and work really well together.
This film is a lot of fun. Director Tim Burton is clearly in his element here. He excels at gothic comedies (Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas, to name a couple), and with his equally kooky muse Johnny Depp in tow this film definitely has its moments. It never quite reaches the highs as a classic like Beetlejuice, but there are laughs to be had here. I also have to point out the soundtrack. It contains some of the best 70s disco music around, and I always found myself bopping along to the background music.