At a time when our screens have become saturated with vampires, Tim Burton decided to revive (as it were) the one that haunted his childhood: Barnabas Collins, star of the 1960s gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. Since the original show never made it to Europe and a large part of the current audience is too young to have seen it, we are not burdened by any preconceptions about what this adaptation should be like. A storyline about the impossibility of love between a woman and a vampire was groundbreaking at the time, but has been endlessly re-packaged over the past few years. So Burton decided to lend a satirical bent to the material. And really, “one can only translate a series such as ‘Dark Shadows’ into a comedy because when looking at the original today, it is – if not quite intentionally – a scream” (Susan Vahabzade, Süddeutsche Zeitung). The director teamed up with his alter ego Johnny Depp (another big fan of the show) to create a new version of Barnabas Collins. One which centers on the confrontation of this old soul with modern times. As in Pirates of the Caribbean, Depp’s language and physique are the big attractions here and they would have made for a brilliant Saturday Night Live skit. Unfortunately, they cannot carry a feature film. “It is clear that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have greatly enjoyed reinventing Barnabas, displaying a humor somewhere between quirky and black (…) looking for droll situations, dialogue and characters. But although I tried very hard to participate in the alleged fun, my smile tended to freeze and at times boredom set in” (Carlos Boyero, El País).
Dark Shadows opens with a prologue set in the 18th century which tells the story of the Collins family settling in Maine and of Barnabas Collins, cursed to be a vampire by a spurned lover and later shackled and buried alive. “All this goes a hundred miles an hour in a sort of compendium of all known clichés of dark romanticism, with (…) charcoal skies, cliffs and howling wind, forbidden love and doom” (Jacques Mandelbaum, Le Monde). Ten minutes later a different film begins, “which takes the tone of a light and anachronistic parody” (Jacques Mandelbaum, Le Monde), when Barnabas is freed from his casket in 1972. There is quite a bit of humor in Depp’s flowery language and in his confrontation with 1970s technology and customs. But unfortunately, this is one of those cases where you’ve already seen the best bits in the trailer. Barnabas returns to the dilapidated Collinswood manor and takes it upon himself to restore the family fortunes. We are introduced to a vast set of supporting characters which include matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), sulky teenager Carolyn – another disappointing performance by Chloë Grace Moretz, who remains frozen in an expression of adolescent disgust – and governess Victoria (Bella Heathcote), who bears a striking resemblance to Barnabas’s true love Josette. But the only one who can really hold her own when sharing the screen with Depp is Eva Green as his deliciously evil nemesis Angelique (or Angie, as they call her here, which may just be a sly dig at you-know-who).
The task fell on screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (whose Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter we’ll see later this year) to construct a script that does justice to this plethora of characters, drawing from 1,225 soap opera episodes. What he is able to cram into just under two hours is impressive, but unfortunately lacks any type of tension or suspense. “It may be that the way the plot in ‘Dark Shadows’ is sometimes out of control or the way the film loses sight of principal characters, pays homage to the soap opera – but at the movies that kind of thing does not work” (Susan Vahabzade, Süddeutsche Zeitung). This would leave us with Burton’s vision, who usually “loves it when the lines between the beautiful and the eerie become blurred” (Susan Vahabzade, Süddeutsche Zeitung). But here, he disappoints. Especially the finale is a pastiche of horror movie banalities, from projectile vomiting to statues coming to life, without any of the Burtonesque originality we’ve come to expect, and with unconvincing special effects to boot. Burton and Depp are to be admired for getting a production like this off the ground (not a sequel, no comic book franchise), but they wasted the opportunity to offer us something truly original amid the blockbusters.