Based on a soap opera that had something like a thousand episodes during the course of its run, Dark Shadows is another movie in which Johnny Depp acts like a Johnny Depp character. Oh, and it has other people acting strange, too, simply for the sake of it. It’s about a 200-year-old vampire being set free after being buried alive, and how he’s going to deal with the silly people — his descendants — who now run his estate.
I should back up. The film begins approximately 200 years earlier, before Barnabas Collins (Depp) was a vampire. He fell in love, but not with the right woman. A jealous witch, who was acting as a maid, cursed him and then locked him away and buried him. Her name is Angelique (Eva Green), and she winds up being the villain, even 200 years later. In present day (1976), she has essentially become the beloved leader of the entire town. She runs the primary fishing company and this has drained the Collins’ fortune, as it was they who originally established the fishery.
The present-day Collins family consists of these people: Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer); Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz), the teenage girl; David (Gulliver McGrath), the young boy who sees ghosts; Roger (Johnny Lee Miller), someone whose role I’m not quite sure; Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), David’s psychiatrist; Willie (Jackie Earle Haley), the caretaker; and Victoria (Bella Heathcote), who looks a suspicious amount like Barnabas’ former lover, probably because they’re both played by Bella Heathcote. No points for guessing what happens in respect to that.
What a cast, huh? Wouldn’t it be nice if this didn’t transform into the Johnny Depp show? But you know it will. The film is directed by Tim Burton, who cast his most favorite actor ever in the lead role. Of course it’s going to be all about him. And, sure enough, as soon as Barnabas is released from his earthly prison (he was buried in the ground, you see), it becomes all Depp, all the time. That’s fun for a while, but since we’ve seen it before, it grows tiresome rather fast. And without an actual plot, we’re left basically watching Depp wander his way through various, semi-connected, events.
I’m not saying that Dark Shadows is without promise or that it’s completely lacking in fun. If you’re not burnt out on Depp acting silly, you’re likely going to have a grand time. When someone from 200 years ago comes to the present day and is scared of all the new technologies, that’s funny. It just can’t carry a film. The problem here is that it sort of tries to, and that’s just not fair to Depp. He’s given such little story to work with that he really does often seem lost.
I suppose one can focus on the Gothic aesthetic with which Burton fills Dark Shadows. This is a great looking film, if nothing else. That’s also not enough to carry a production whose running time is almost two hours. Maybe a 90-minute film can get by with this slight a story and characters, but this one can’t do it. It can look as pretty as punch, but without any reason to care, you might as well just take a trip to the local art gallery. Or the internet, which has millions of Gothic paintings you can see.
I … I struggled to find the point, okay? I can’t justify telling you to watch it, because I can’t think of anything that I took from it other than a little bit of fun at Depp’s expense and the gorgeous visuals. There’s barely any plot, the characters are shallower than skin-deep, there isn’t anything on its mind, and most of the actors are just going through the motions. A great cast has been assembled here, but most of them don’t get to do much of anything.
Well, there are two actors who stand out. I’ve already mentioned Depp, who brings some comedy to the role, which I don’t think a lot of actors would have been able to do. Eva Green is the other one, who here puts on a spotty but good enough American accent and plays the role as hammy as possible, ensuring that whenever she’s on-screen, we have something to watch. I wish the roles were flipped. She could play the protagonist, and Depp would be the villain. That might have been even more fun.
But, alas, that isn’t the case. The film is an adaptation of a previous series, after all, and the original Dark Shadows has 1,000+ episodes from which to draw ideas, and flipping around key characters would only anger fans. It’s those fans, coincidentally, who should watch this new version. They’ll at least have something to which they can compare it. For everyone else? It’s too empty to recommend seeing.
Dark Shadows is a film that exists so Johnny Depp can do his Johnny Depp thing, Tim Burton can do his Tim Burton thing, and everyone else can stand around watching them do their thing while nothing gets accomplished and millions of dollars get wasted. (Okay, Eva Green also joins in for brief spurts, which is enjoyable.) It looks good, it has some funny moments, but it’s so completely shallow and devoid of plot and depth that once you get over Depp being moderately funny and the Gothic aesthetic, there’s nothing to keep you watching for almost two hours. Spend your time in a better way.