Dark Shadows is a mess, and it's unclear whether its bizarre recipe of comedy, campy horror, and gothic melodrama will satisfy anyone, regardless of their familiarity with the source material. By attempting to be too faithful to Dan Curtis' cult TV series, Tim Burton and his screenwriters have crammed an excess of story material into two hours without making a final decision about whether they want the resulting production to be a satire or an homage. The whiplash-inducing shifts in tone cause Dark Shadows to veer from hardcore Hammer horror to The Rocky Horror Picture Show and back again. And, for those who care about the story, it unfolds in such a scattershot manner that it is often pointless and frustrating to follow.
Dark Shadows debuted on ABC daytime during the late 1960s and survived for five years and 1225 episodes holding down the end slot of the network's afternoon block of soap operas. Although the series never boasted tremendous ratings, it proved to be popular with the 18-35 crowd and inspired a Star Trek-like devotion from aficionados. It was briefly revived as an early 1990s re-imagination on nighttime TV. The ultra-serious, high budget retelling of the story starred Ben Cross as the central character, vampire Barnabas Collins, and also featured Joanna Going, Jean Simmons, and Joseph-Gordon Levitt. It took another two decades for avowed fans Tim Burton and Johnny Depp to bring this story to the big screen. However, what was taken seriously in the late '60s and early '70s comes across as low comedy today; it's almost impossible to watch the original Dark Shadows in 2012 and not laugh. However, although a primarily comedic approach to the material (as was done with Starsky and Hutch or 21 Jump Street) seems warranted, Burton chose to make his version of Dark Shadows in a mostly straightforward manner with occasional injections of over-the-top campiness and humor. Rather than blending artfully, however, the mixture curdles.
The majority of the movie is set in 1972, following a prologue that transpires in the late 18th century. A young governess, Victoria Winters née Maggie Evans (Bella Heathcote), arrives at a gothic Maine manor to teach a troubled young boy who sees dead people. She is received warmly by the boy's aunt, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), but with some reticence by his father, Roger Collins (Johnny Lee Miller), and his live-in doctor, Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter). Shortly after Victoria's arrival, another newcomer knocks at the door to Collinwood Manor. He is Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), a 200-year old vampire who has escaped from the grave to restore the fortunes of his once-great family. Unfortunately for Barnabas, the witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), the jilted lover who cursed him all those years ago, is alive and thriving and more than willing to resume their relationship where it left off.
Dark Shadows is not entirely without its share of clever moments. The ironic use of music is a prime example. The Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin" plays over the opening credits, Karen Carpenter is featured in a television appearance, and Alice Cooper has a lengthy in-person cameo. There's an energetic sex scene (accompanied by a Barry White song) that recalls a similarly destructive and acrobatic sequence from The Tall Guy, although Dark Shadows' PG-13 rating demands that it be toned down. (When Jeff Goldblum and Emma Thompson went at it, they had the benefit of an R.) Had more of Dark Shadows achieved heights like those, it might have been destined for greatness (or at least a positive review), but Burton exhibits unfortunate tendencies toward excessive reverence. He shoehorns as many subplots and characters as possible from the original series into the movie and it becomes exhausting to follow the narrative's contortions. It's difficult to say whether fans will be thrilled since major changes have been made to established characters and relationships. Four of the original Dark Shadows actors make appearances, including Jonathan Frid, the original Barnabas, who died shortly after filming the cameo.
For Johnny Depp, a longtime fan of the series, playing Barnabas falls into the "dream come true" category, which makes it disheartening to throw darts at his portrayal. Ever since attacking the role of Cap'n Jack Sparrow with gusto in the original Pirates of the Caribbean, the fine actor of the '90s and early '00s has been replaced by a man with a penchant for over-the-top weirdness. His Barnabas is soulless, but not because he's a vampire. It's because of the drag queen-like approach Depp employs to portray him. This works fine for the openly campy scenes but destroys moments that are intended to be taken seriously. Depp's Barnabas belongs in The Munsters or The Addams Family.
To her credit, Eva Green vamps it up in a desperate attempt to keep up with Depp and, for the most part, manages it. When the two of them are together, there are sparks. The rest of the cast is set adrift, left to fend for themselves. Helena Bonham Carter seems like she's still playing Bellatrix Lestrange from the Harry Potter series. Chloe Grace Moretz has been typecast as a temperamental teen with supernatural problems. Dark Shadows' greatest nod to vampire movies of the past is in the stunt casting of Christopher Lee as a sea captain. Regrettably, he has less screen time than Alice Cooper.
Dark Shadows' biggest problem may be expectations. By being released at the outset of the 2012 summer season, it has been fallaciously positioned as a so-called "tent pole" movie. In reality, it's an uneven and overlong resurrection of a long-dead TV series whose fan base is drawing Social Security checks and rarely goes to the movies. Also, big things are now expected from the notoriously quirky Burton after his previous feature, Alice in Wonderland, became a bona fide blockbuster (Burton's second highest grossing film when adjusted for inflation, after Batman). Dark Shadows would have been better placed in a less competitive market where its numerous flaws might be more easily ignored or forgiven. As it is, in terms of audience appeal and box office impact, the most appropriate analog for Dark Shadows might be Speed Racer.