The beginning of Tim Burton's Dark Shadows is a churn of events. The year is 1760. We are in Liverpool, as a ship sets sail for the New World. Before climbing aboard, the patriarch of the Collins family instructs his young son that family is the only real wealth, thus hinting at a story that's about blood in more ways than one, and then, in America, this family establishes itself as a presence so powerful that the town comes to be called Collinsport.
They move into one of those manors only Burton's production designers seem to be capable of designing, with Gothic turrets and a ziggurat-like roof sections, and in one of its 200 rooms, we see Barnabas, the son from Liverpool, all grown up now, and in the arms of Angelique (Eva Green). To him, she's sport. But she loves him, and when he spurns her, she resorts to witchery — in an impressive fit of productivity, she murders his parents, tosses his lover (the wraithlike Bella Heathcote) over a cliff, and turns Barnabas into a vampire. I pumped an imaginary fist in the air and thought: Tim Burton is back.
The early portions of Dark Shadows are brined in Burton's characteristically macabre whimsy, but he also demonstrates a lightness of touch he hasn't in a long while. It feels like a homecoming of sorts when Barnabas, two centuries later, moves in with the family that's presently occupying his manor — it's Beetlejuice all over again. Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), who always seems to be appearing at the head of the stairs, presides over the few remaining descendants of the original Collinses, a pallid bunch; it's as if no one had ever stepped out of the house and into sunlight.
She welcomes Barnabas grudgingly (he knows where the manor's treasures are hidden), and he decides he will restore his family to its former glory. For a while, Burton and Depp seem to be after a fish-out-of-water comedy — Encino Man as re-imagined by Poe in a larkish fit. Will frock-coated Barnabas, with his insatiable thirst for human blood, make it in 1972, as the Collinsport theatres advertise Deliverance and the air is charged with strains from ‘Crocodile Rock'?
This premise is fun for a while, but it's abandoned as we're ushered into a subplot where Barnabas seeks to re-establish the family's seafood business, in which course he runs into the deathless Angelique, now the most powerful woman in town.
Angelique attempts to rekindle their centuries-old passion, but once again, he sleeps with her and then spurns her. We expect Angelique's anger to animate the remainder of the film (she's twice bitten now), but that narrative thread is snapped as we're led into the secrets of the redheaded psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), the governess named Victoria (Bella Heathcote again), and the children of the manor, Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz) and David (Gulliver McGrath). Each of these characters threatens to develop into a major player in the proceedings. None does.
Depp, with his inverted-comma bangs, and the formidably loose-limbed Green commandeer the best lines, the best swatches of scenery to chew on, and they leave everyone else in the dust. But even their spirited mugging can only go so far towards redeeming a film so pointless, so weightless — scenes seem to drift away even as we are watching them. It all adds up to... nothing.
Maybe it will all make sense to those who watched the original television show.
I looked up Wikipedia and found that Dark Shadows, on TV, “was distinguished by its vividly melodramatic performances, atmospheric interiors, memorable storylines, numerous dramatic plot twists, unusually adventurous music score, and broad and epic cosmos of characters and heroic adventures.” At least they kept the atmospheric interiors.
Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter
Storyline: A vampire in the modern day attempts to restore his family to glory
Bottomline: Fans of the TV show may find it fun.