A creepy goth tale of love and revenge, a 17th century vampire out of place in 1970’s Maine, a troubled family fallen on bad times. Based on a popular soap opera of the 1960s, the film version of Dark Shadows suffers from some horrible scenes and a story that gets increasingly incoherent as it proceeds to its predictable, though completely incomprehensible ending. Dark Shadows is the eighth collaboration between director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp, and that collaboration has had very mixed results across the years. On the positive side, Edward Scissorhands, but on the negative side a number of overly stylized messes notably including the creepy and disturbing remake Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
To be charitable, the first hour of Dark Shadows was terrific. The film opens in 1750 Liverpool, England, as the Collins family, including young Barnabas, departs for the Colonies, landing in Maine and establishing their fortunes as entrepreneurial pioneers. Twenty years later young Barnabas (Depp) is master of his community, a city named Collinsport, and adored by servant and townie alike. Unfortunately, when he falls for servant girl Angelique (Eva Green) but switches his amorous attentions to Josette (Bella Heathcote), Angelique gets mad and as she’s a witch, she curses Barnabas, turning him into a vampire. She then buries him alive where he lays undisturbed for almost two centuries, waking up in the Hippie-inspired world of 1972.
Barnabas awakens and returns to Collinwood, the ancestral home, a delightfully creepy run-down 200-room mansion complete with turrets, peculiar sculptures and secret passages. He meets the last of the Collins line: Family matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her dubious brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), his son David (Gully McGrath) and her daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz). Also in residence is Dr. Julia (Helena Bonham Carter), hired to treat David who is ostensibly crazy but actually seems the most sane of everyone in this Adams Family sort of band of oddballs.
The introduction of David’s nanny Victoria (Bella Heathcote) and reappearance of the evil Angie (Eva Green) add to the storyline, but when Barnabas and Angie make love in her office, the film falls apart and never recovers. Worse, their love making scene is a disaster of epic weird masochistic proportions as they slam into walls, scratch each other, and turn what could have been creepy interesting into stupid appalling. But that’s not the worst scene in the film: there’s one later on when Victoria’s explaining her childhood that would have fit far better in the torture-porn film Sucker Punch.
By the time the film wraps, there are so many inconsistencies in the story (can Barnabas survive direct sunlight or not?) so many random violent scenes, so much that doesn’t really make sense even within the goth soap opera world of Dark Shadows, that most theatergoers seemed glad to see the credits appear. There’s a really entertaining film buried inside Dark Shadows, with a delightful performance by Depp, but as is, however, I cannot recommend the film to anyone but the most hardcore Burton fan.