Arriving on the big screen four decades after the original TV series Dark Shadows went off the air -- and on the heels of two failed attempts to resurrect it on the small screen -- Tim Burton's take on the classic gothic soap opera offers irrefutable evidence that some vampires are best left buried. Listless and lacking any story momentum that might actually bring the stagnant plot to life, these shadows aren't nearly as dark as they are dull, ensuring that not even Burton's trademark visuals are capable of hypnotizing us into believing that we're seeing something remotely interesting.
Transformed into a vampire and entombed for 200 years after betraying vengeful witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), 18th century fishing magnate Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) returns to Collinwood Manor in 1972, only to find his once-proud estate in ruins and his family plagued by macabre secrets. It was the year 1752 when Barnabas' parents came to America to expand their business empire. But after establishing the thriving New England fishing town of Collinsport, the family experienced a series of misfortunes when Barnabas fell for the gorgeous Josette DuPres (Bella Heathcoate) and cast aside beautiful witch Angelique, who cursed him with eternal life and buried him deep in the earth. Returning home to Collinwood Manor after being dug up by a construction crew in 1972, Barnabas learns that Angelique has nearly driven his family out of business and turned the townspeople against them. Determined matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) employs live-in psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) and enchanting governess Victoria Winters (Heathcoate) to try and help young David Collins (Gully McGrath) get over the mysterious death of his beloved mother, and as Barnabas gets acquainted with his distant ancestors -- including Elizabeth's black-sheep brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller) and headstrong teenage daughter Carolyn Stoddard (Chloe Grace Moretz) -- their suffering weighs heavily on his shoulders. Later, when Angelique learns that Barnabas has returned on a mission to restore his family to its former glory and he has fallen for the radiant Victoria (who is actually Josette reincarnated), she vows to make his suffering unimaginable if he should dare refuse her once again.
From the moment it was announced that Tim Burton was tackling Dark Shadows, a pervasive air of uncertainty seemed to cloud every report about the film. Would it be true to the melodrama of the original series, or perhaps follow the current trend of satirizing the source material, à la Land of the Lost or 21 Jump Street? When the goofy first trailer arrived suspiciously late, it almost appeared as if Burton were channeling The Addams Family. The truth is, Burton's film is much more in keeping with the original series' melodramatic tone than the misguided advertising campaign would suggest. Sadly, the one point that Burton (and all others who have attempted to keep the Dark Shadows flame alight) seems to miss is the same one that made the original series great: the unpredictability of live television. Dan Curtis's Dark Shadows was a soap opera. Yes, the gothic trappings and supernatural goings-on helped to separate it from the glut of shows set in such mundane surroundings as sterile hospitals or stagnant suburban homes, but as with any daytime drama series, even the simplest of storylines on Dark Shadows could be stretched out to interminable lengths, and the moments when something went completely awry -- a fly buzzing around an actor's head, a piece of the set crumbling on camera -- gave the show a transcendent quality by contrasting against the gravely serious tone. It seems that in this incarnation of Dark Shadows, Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith have attempted to replace that variability with flashes of fish-out-of-water satire, and though the effects are occasionally amusing (as in a scene where Barnabas recites classic-rock lyrics like they were poetry), they mostly fall completely flat.
The ham-fisted humor would have been acceptable had the screenplay actually shown some dramatic thrust, but while Grahame-Smith does remain true to the series' most prominent plotline by focusing on the love triangle between Barnabas, Angelique, and Josette, he doesn't inject enough passion into the drama to make it resonate. There's just not much going on in the story, and to make matters worse, the talented cast are all but wasted as the plot focuses almost exclusively on the battle of wills between Barnabas and Angelique. By the time the action ramps up in the big climax and we're treated to a few unexpected twists, we just aren't invested enough in the characters to care about the outcome. Still, in a strange sort of way, Burton's Dark Shadows is in keeping with the two other features spawned by the original series, 1970's House of Dark Shadows and 1971's Night of Dark Shadows -- neither were very good, and both helped to prove the point that what makes for compelling daytime television doesn't necessarily make for great cinema.