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The Hollywood landscape is rife with odd and dysfunctional families. From the Tenenbaums in the much-loved 2001 Wes Anderson outing to The Hoovers in Little Miss Sunshine right over to The Addams Family. For the most part, however, these messed-up folks have nothing on The Collins clan (at least The Addams Family got along). Tim Burton’s latest outing marks his eighth teaming with lead Johnny Depp and takes a ghoulish soap opera (with a ’70s twist) and crafts a frequently funny (but tonally deaf) lark that eventually succumbs to its own fondness for the occult.
The original Dark Shadows was a gothic weekday soap opera that aired from the summer of 1966 to the spring of 1971 and aired over 1,200 episodes to decent critical and viewer reception. Since then (and as seems to be the case with any vintage entry with a flavor for the weird) it has gained a cult following, so it doesn’t get much more apt for the wacky mind of Burton. I truly can’t speak to the faithfulness of his vision, but considering how overstuffed 2012’s Dark Shadows is, I can only imagine he not only threw in countless tidbits and references for fans, but tossed in some of his own material for good measure.
Via a helpful opening voiceover vignette, Depp’s Barnabus Collins chronicles how his family came to Maine, New England from Liverpool in 1782 to start a new life and built a tidy little dynasty (and a huge manor) for themselves. That is, however, until a love-scorned witch (Eva Green) went on a murderous rampage before finally turning dear Barnabus into a vampire and imprisoning him in the cold ground for all eternity – or so she thought. Courtesy of the construction of a new McDonald’s, Collins’ coffin is unearthed in 1972, and after drinking his long-overdue fill, he heads back to his beloved mansion to rejoin his distant descendants.
It is this first “present day” act which is the strongest of the entire film, with the stodgy, old-fashioned Collins’ adjusting to a new time — and to being a member of the undead. In fact, nearly all of the site gags, the befuddled looks of bystanders and general line delivery by Depp leave their mark. (The first time Barnabus sits down to dinner with his family is particularly mirthful.) But it ultimately begs the question: if Burton had stuck to this fish-out-of-water (or would that be vampire out of coffin?) structure, could this have been a worthy successor to Beetlejuice instead of a pseudo, genre-hopping follow-up to every other film he’s made.
To do a full sub-genre wrap-up of all the elements included in Dark Shadows would be nearly impossible, but it covers everything from fantasy, horror and action to tragedy, comedy and romance. It’s not to say that these elements fail completely on their own, but when crammed into two hours it can be exhausting. Thankfully, the affair doesn’t completely implode until the embarrassing “(anti-)climactic showdown” between Barnabus and Green’s Angelique. By then we’ve had enough of an amusing time it merely lowers the entire thing to mindless escapism, not to a towering disaster.
In case doubt was ever raised, it is Depp who anchors the film and I fear his absence (despite us having seen his makeup-smeared bit many times before) would have left a significant void. As far as the other supporting characters go, only Michelle Pfeiffer as the home’s matriarch and Eva Green (who is a rather voluptuous presence) get any screen time, and even then they’re on screen for a collective 45 minutes max. Alice Cooper (who has a mere cameo as “the ugliest woman Collins has ever seen”) seems to be around as much as some of the principle cast. Barnabus’ relationship with governess Victoria (a lovely Bella Heathcote) on the other hand? As underused a love interest as I’ve ever seen – script love, no chemistry.
Without the vampire angle, Dark Shadows would have nothing – it needs the offbeat scenario to generate laughs (and more importantly differentiate it from every other misfit-in-a-strange-place setup). The story should have simply chronicled Barnabus trying to pull together the shambles of his family and resurrect his long-defunct business (all while battling his bloodlust in the groovy ’70s).
Doing away with the love interest, supernatural battles and attempts at genuine horror would have been of great service to the film. Burton could have had something special, but instead we have a solid period comedy with a great feel for the era suffocated with sub-plots, a mish-mash of tones and bizarre character motives. Calling it “just another Burton/Depp collaboration” is apt description enough.