By Forrest Hartman
2½ stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray and digital download
One can always count on director Tim Burton to deliver movies dripping with atmosphere, and his film adaptation of the 1960s and ’70s soap opera “Dark Shadows” is eerily beautiful to look at. Unfortunately, the storytelling elements don’t keep pace with Burton’s visual craftsmanship.
The “Dark Shadows” TV show ran five years, and vampire Barnabus Collins wasn’t in early episodes, but his eventual appearance created a ratings spike, making him the face of the series. Likely for that reason, Burton and company put the focus squarely on Barnabus (Johnny Depp). The movie starts by explaining the character’s past, most importantly how he was transformed from a powerful 18th century businessman into a bloodsucking demon that got buried alive. The action then moves forward to 1972, when construction workers unwittingly free the vampire.
The now-ancient Barnabus returns to his estate, finding his family business in disarray. The current head of the household is Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), and she is kept company by her troubled daughter, Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz); her ne’er do well brother, Roger (Johnny Lee Miller); Roger’s son, David (Gulliver McGrath); David’s psychiatrist (Helena Bonham Carter); and the family housekeeper (Jackie Earle Haley). It’s a dysfunctional group, and Barnabus struggles to fit in not only because he’s a man out of his time, but because each of his descendants has issues.
Slowly, he ingratiates himself to the family, pledging to return their fishing business to its former glory. This won’t be easy, however, because one of Barnabus’ old enemies, a witch named Angelique (Eva Green), has established a successful rival company.
As vampires go, Barnabus is an interesting character in that he is neither good nor evil. As portrayed by Depp, he is often brutal and animalistic, yet he is just as frequently kind and considerate. This is a difficult line to walk, but Depp does a reasonably good job.
Unfortunately, Burton isn’t as skilled at walking the tightrope. Just as Barnabus is an odd mix of good and evil, “Dark Shadows” is supposed to be a mix of humor and horror, and Burton never gets the formula right. There are laughs to be had in chronicling the exploits of a 200-year-old vampire discovering the modern world, and Burton attempts to mine this territory, but never very successfully. That’s probably because many of the comedy scenes are immediately followed by sequences dripping with genuine horror. Alas, they too suffer because of the strangely lighthearted bits that come before.
As good as Burton is at creating atmosphere, “Dark Shadows” suffers from an inconsistency in tone. The upshot is a movie that feels like it could have been great with a few minor adjustments. Since they were never made, viewers are left with a film that looks terrific, but feels long, dull and uneven.
DVD and Blu-ray extras include a making-of feature centered on the movie characters and the actors who portrayed them.