Dark Shadows isn’t as bad as I imagined it would be, and maybe that’s the best compliment I can pay to it. It’s not the self-indulgent, boring Tim Burton quirkfest I expected. It is self-indulgent, and it’s smattered in Burton quirks, but it’s more frivolous — and lightly comic — than I’d anticipated. In fact, though it’s easy to get down on Johnny Depp for his recent work, he’s really all that salvages Dark Shadows from completely forgettable muck, a gothic Death Becomes Her with vampires, witches, and ghosts. It’s silly, but not silly enough to be terrific fun. It’s just short of campy, and campy is exactly what Dark Shadows needed.
Based on the 60’s daytime gothic soap opera of which I have no knowledge, Dark Shadows is centered on Barnabas Collins (Depp), the Collins family, and the curse placed upon the family by a witch, Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green). Back in the late 18th century, Barnabas spurned the romantic advances of his housekeeper, Angelique, and she used black magic to kill his parents, send his lover over a cliff, and turn Barnabas into a vampire. In fact, she was so pissed that Barnabis didn’t love her back that she turned the town against him and had him buried alive in a coffin. All of this is relayed by montage in the first ten minutes of the film.
Two centuries later, after Barnabas is freed from his coffin, he returns to his manor, where his downtrodden family lives: There’s the matriarch, Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her shitty, philandering, no-good brother, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller); Elizabeth’s surly teenage daughter (Chloë Grace Moretz); and Roger’s young son, David, who is haunted by the death of his mother, who — like other Collins’ women before her — took a header into the ocean. Meanwhile, a new governess, Victoria (Bella Heathcote) moves in, and she bears a remarkable resemblance to Barnabis’ long-dead lover. Barnabis’ return shakes up the morose Collins manor, he falls for the Governess, and the Collins family aims to rebuild their fishing business and take down Angelique, who now controls most of the fishermans’ boats in Collinswood.
There are a few deliciously wry (and steamily gothic) scenes between Eva Green and Johnny Depp’s characters, and Seth-Grahame Green’s script does get some Blast from the Past comic mileage out of Barnabis’ introduction to the 1970s after two centuries in the ground. Unfortunately, that — plus Burton’s always luscious visuals — is not enough to elevate Dark Shadows above the stale formula of a underdog studio comedy (with dark edges). There are some thematic similarities to Burton and Depp’s Edward Scisshorhand — lonely, isolated figure kept from his true love by cursed circumstances — but where Scissorhands had fairy-tale magic, Dark Shadows has suffocating soullessness that not even the best efforts of Depp can puncture.
That said, it’s not a painfully tedious or boring film, it’s just not a very good one. However, the special effects are fun, and Eva Green is murderously scintillating in an array of cleavage-baring dresses, which is to say: It’s not the worst way to spend two hours.