Tim Burton’s career has been in a strange place for a while now, with remakes and ‘reimaginings’ taking up more of his time than genuinely original or interesting projects, while Dark Shadows seems to have been met with a kind of irritation that it’s ‘another Tim Burton film with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in it’. I’d love to say that it’s a rip-roaring return to form for one of my favourite directors, but, unfortunately, it’s a bit too much hit-and-miss.
For one thing, it’s still another remake, albeit of an obscure (particularly for British audiences) American soap-opera-with-a-vampire, and while it certainly feels like a Burton film, it doesn’t have the magic of Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice or Ed Wood. In that sense, it’s alongside Sleepy Hollow, Mars Attacks!, Big Fish and Sweeney Tood as a Burton film that’s pretty good, but doesn’t linger in the memory too long. Lingering is something that Dark Shadows definitely doesn’t too – it flies past, and that’s the main problem with it.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, for something that was originally a TV show, it feels like there’s just too much going on and too many characters to fit into a film without it feeling like it’s on fastforward. There’s Depp’s Barnabas Collins, a Liverpudlian boy who grows up to be turned into a vampire by spurned witch Eva Green, and then there’s his 1972 descendants like Michelle Pfeiffer, Jonny Lee Miller and Chloe Grace Moretz, plus Bonham Carter as a therapist and Bella Heathcote as a governess. Some of these characters get a lot of screentime, others hardly any.
Take Jonny Lee Miller’s character, the brother of Pfeiffer’s matriarch and generally a troublemaking thief, but we learn very little about him and he’s soon packed off before we can even remember his name. And then there’s Heathcote’s governess, who seems important at the start, and is again at the end, but disappears for long spells in-between. If Dark Shadows were redone as a TV series (or even mini-series), there would be time to develop her story, along with all the other plot threads that are barely touched upon. It all feels so rushed, and therefore, inconsequential.
Of course, the problem is that Dark Shadows has been a TV series three times (well, kind of), with diminishing returns each time. A 1991 revival didn’t last long, while a 2004 pilot never got aired. You sense that even if it was redone and done well, it would probably be the kind of quirky show that that was great fun but got cancelled after eight episodes. The film doesn’t seem to have fared that much better, which is a shame, because there’s lots to enjoy, not least another stellar comedy performance from Depp, who plays the ‘fish out of water’ aspect perfectly.
There’s also a great soundtrack from Danny Elfman, although his score is the least part of it. Being set in the early 70s allows the use of so much fantastic music, not necessarily unexpected choices, but done really well. And there’s even a cameo performance by Alice Cooper (with surprisingly little effort made to make him look as old as he was in 1972, something you wouldn’t think was hard with today’s technology), complete with a cool intro from Moretz. But again, that just brings to mind how rushed it all felt. Her character had so much potential, especially with the late twist, but instead it almost felt like an afterthought.
With another ‘twist’ at the very end, it felt a little like we were being set up for a sequel, which seems massively unlikely, but my main feeling was that this was a missed opportunity. If Burton and Depp had teamed up fora mini-series of Dark Shadows, with the same budget, cast and ambition, it could have been a classic. Instead, we got the highlights reel rammed into a film that couldn’t decide if it was horror, melodrama or comedy, and ended up not satisfactorily doing any of them. It’s not a bad film, far from it, but it’s not a great one either.