It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment I fell out of love with Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows. Johnny Depp, of course, makes an excellent Barnabas Collins, the elegant, dandyish, fiercely house-proud 18th century vampire who, after being buried alive for 200 years, returns to his family home, circa 1972. And Burton luxuriates in the period details—the bean bag chairs, the lava lamps, the leisure suits, the inanely chirpy music of the day (“I’m on the Top of the World” et al). There is a fabulous bit where Barnabas lays his head down on a piano in despair, but rather than a gothic organ chord befitting a vampire of his status sounding. . . a tinny synthesizer beat plays instead.
But after a while, the film overstays its welcome. Burton, as is so often the case, has created this fabulous, almost fetishistically detailed world and doesn’t know what to do with it. He has a gift for visuals, mood, mimesis—but not necessarily character and story.
After a brief prologue where we learn of Barnabas’s fate—he had the misfortune of not returning the affections of a powerful witch (Eva Green), who killed his dearly beloved and turned him into a vampire—the film starts with that trusty old movie chestnut: A beautiful governess (Bella Heathcote) arriving to a mysterious decaying mansion, compelled by forces she herself isn’t quite aware of. (She is, in fact, a descendant of Barnabas’s true love.)
All this is good, as is the arrangement Barnabas makes with the current matriarch of the Collins home, Elizabeth (a welcome Michelle Pfeiffer—where ya been, girl?). She will help hide Barnabas’s true identity—the rest of the family thinks he is merely a peculiar “foreigner”—as long as he helps restore the family fortune.
Sporting a rust-colored wig, oversized glasses, and an exaggerated East Coast patois, Helena Bonham Carter, who is Burton’s wife and second favorite muse (after Depp, of course) is amusing as the family’s live-in psychiatrist, who begins to have her suspicions about the pale new houseguest.
The immortal witch is on hand, too—now running a rival fishing company that nearly puts the Collins’s out of business and still pining away for Barnabas.
There’s a funny scene of witch-on-vampire hate sex—which leaves the room completely destroyed (a tiny nod, perhaps to the hotel-trashing days of Depp’s past). And then the film just kinda . . . sits there.
The love story between Barnabas and the new governess is tepid; the business rivalry is dull; the obsessed witch thing gets old fast; even the talented young Chloe Grace Moretz, as the family’s eye-rolling teenager, isn’t able to add much fun to the proceedings.
And then in the end, as if sensing that not all has come together, Burton falls back on familiar territory, turning Eva Green’s witch into one his kohl-eyed, brittle-boned, broken doll creations. (I don’t remember that from the original 1960s soap opera!).
It’s fitfully amusing and certainly cool to look at, but—Depp’s performance notwithstanding— Dark Shadows is all fang, no bang.