Dark Shadows Review

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Year: 2012
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 1 HR, 53 MIN

Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Jackie Earle Haley, Jonny Lee Miller, Bella Heathcote, Chloë Grace Moretz, Gulliver McGrath, and Christopher Lee

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The original Dark Shadows ran from 1966 to 1971 as an afternoon ‘supernatural’ soap opera that finished with over 1200 episodes.  The show has been credited with influencing several other future paranormal themed shows such as Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer in addition to being ahead of its time and prematurely cancelled.  Now, over forty years after going off the air Dark Shadows is set to rise from the cinematic crypt.

After being turned into a vampire and being imprisoned for almost 200 years by a love scorned witch the mysterious Barnabas Collins of Collinwood, Maine has been released upon 1972.  He finds himself in a world he doesn’t recognize and stuck with a dysfunctional family he doesn’t know.  As he tries to resurrect the family and their floundering fish canning business he encounters an unexpected foe.

I have never seen an episode of the original Dark Shadows, it had been off the air for over a decade by the time I was even born.  I vaguely remember it playing during the early years of the Sci-fi Channel in the mid-nineties but I never gave it a shot.  Dark Shadows is currently available from Netflix Streaming but it’s a little tough to get a feeling for a series with over 1200 total episodes just by watching a handful.  Aside from a little bit of research online and speaking with some acquaintances about their memories of the show I went into Dark Shadows with few preconceptions aside from my misgivings about it being another Tim Burton/Johnny Depp collaboration with Helena Bonham Carter tagging along since she’s sleeping with the director.

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Dark Shadows isn’t a terrible film but it’s nowhere near good either.  The film is full of half thought out ideas many of which go nowhere with only a few actually being wrapped up by the film’s conclusion.  There’s absolutely no commitment to what kind of film Dark Shadows wants to be.  Gothic horror, comedy, mystery, action, and romantic themes are all touched upon but none of them take the lead.  The longer the film runs the more erratic it becomes with more and more bizarre, out of the blue plot twists littering the film until it abruptly ends.

Was all that intentional?  It’s very possible the show was equally uneven and if it was I give them credit for taking the risk and staying true to the show’s original format.  The issue I have with that is that most audiences aren’t going to get the joke.  The film isn’t geared towards older viewers that know the show’s original eccentricities but is instead aimed at the same demographic that enjoyed the Burton/Depp adaptations of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland whose audiences are much more familiar with the original source material than they are with a somewhat obscure 70’s afternoon soap opera.

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All isn’t lost however, Dark Shadows looks great, the 1970’s Maine atmosphere is one of the more endearing qualities of the film.  As soon as the film transitions to the 1970s I immediately asked myself why Tim Burton hadn’t put his talents to bringing a book like Stephan King’s Salem’s Lot to screen which also also takes place in Maine during the 1970s.  All of Tim Burton’s films feature strong visuals and Dark Shadows is no exception but beneath the film’s sleek look is a soulless mess with characters that ultimately no one cares about.

Working in the film’s favor Dark Shadows does have some very funny dialogue.  Despite all of the film’s narrative flaws I did find myself occasionally laughing.  Johnny Depp’s (whom I’m not a great fan of) deadpan delivery coupled with his ‘fish out of water’ mentality can be very funny but as the film goes on even that joke starts to wear a bit thin.

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Most of the ensemble cast flounders; Jonny Lee Miller is wasted in a forgettable role, all Michelle Pfeiffer does is wear Cher’s old wardrobe, Helena Bonham Carter’s role seems a bit too much like  “art imitating life”, and Chloë Grace Moretz is awkwardly sexualized.  Relative newcomer Bella Heathcote is pretty and is introduced to be a major player in the film but the script does her no favors as she disappears for long stretches without explanation.  Jackie Earle Haley gets a few laughs with a small role as the bumbling groundkeeper and is one of the few characters I would have like to have seen more of.  The always sexy Eva Green stars as the film’s ranting villain; her cleavage might have singlehandedly saved Dark Shadows from a 1 star fate but by the film’s climax even her bouncy rantings had worn out their welcome.
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Dark Shadows isn’t a very good film, it’s all over the place in terms of plot and pacing which far outweigh its few positive attributes.  Tim Burton’s visuals and Johnny Depp’s performance are both solid but Dark Shadows weak foundation collapses under its own bloated ill-conceived weight.  In the end Dark Shadows is a forgettable film adaptation of a mostly forgotten show which looking back seems like a strangely appropriate fate.

Written by

Nicholas Herum