Without the connection to something that already exists as a cult hit, the premise of Dark Shadows would be nearly impossible to sell. Even with that connection Johnny Depp struggled to get the project off the ground, and the result, unfortunately, gives us a good example of why “vanity projects” have a bad name, no matter who we have involved with them.
Worse, Dark Shadows starts out as a thoroughly impressive effort to relive a curiosity of television, not merely by revisiting its well, but by trying to do what it was trying to do. A tricky, and overly thought-intensive idea, considering the genre we’re in, it is nevertheless a surprising turn to come out of what is ultimately an indescribably silly venture.
Depp plays Barnabas Collins, and we meet him some 200 years ago. A young man born of a wealthy family, Barnabas grows to adulthood in a small town in Maine that is named after his family, and booming because of their fishing business. He unfortunately toys with the emotions of Angelique (Eva Green), depending on how you look at it, and she vows revenge. Thus is born the old adage about knowing whether or not someone is a witch before getting involved with them. The woman Barnabas really loves falls prey to the witch, and when Barnabas tries to follow her to her demise, Angelique turns him into a vampire, largely for purposes of making him suffer forever. She quickly has him chained inside a coffin and buried.
Fast forward to the ’70s, and Barnabas is dug up during construction. Returning to his family’s estate, Barnabas finds that his family isn’t doing well, and Angelique has become the most prominent person in town, mostly by way of undermining the Collins’ fishing empire. Barnabas, forwarded largely by fish-out-of-time gags, vows to bring his family back to the prosperous position they should be in, and he’s got the secret stash of wealth to make it happen.
Barnabas finds that there are a lot of obstacles to success, and many of them from within the fold. The family has largely evolved into a kind of Addams Family-esque rabble, and none of them have the slightest notion what to do with themselves, or what it might even mean to be in any position other than more or less haunting their rundown mansion.
For much of its run, Dark Shadows is a genius, if oddball adventure, and Johnny Depp carries it almost on his own. Despite a potentially great cast, who make fairly good use of what they’re given, Depp is rarely given a chance to work with anyone but Eva Green. That works in the beginning, but ultimately doesn’t give us anywhere to go.
A strange, but interesting, play on relationships (and crazed, jealous, obsessed women), with a winking nod toward Soap Opera sensibilities, we wander along with Barnabas as he has to make the best of his crazy situation. Sure, he’s undead, but he’s got a business to get off the ground and a household to get in order. The fact that his nemesis is an insane, nearly all-powerful witch bent on causing as much destruction as she can only drives the chaos, but it’s just one more thing on the agenda.
It works, for as long as it does, because it commits to what it is. Though outlandish, this is no simple trick, and it is much to the credit of Tim Burton‘s abilities, that the film comes together so well during the first hour. This is especially true in terms of pacing and dialogue delivery, though these are not the things that usually spring to mind when his name is mentioned. Where Depp and Green clash as their love/hate/sex/torture relationship goes through its paces, the film shines, and when we are focused on the deliberate, methodical construction of the situation’s development, we are getting Burton at his very best.
Unfortunately, the film loses its hold on its best qualities, and coupled with a lack of focus, it almost inevitably falls into an abyss of nonsensical wrap-up that renders the whole far worse than the sum of its parts. With our witch delivered to us as more powerful than actually makes sense in our overall scheme, but moves scenes along simplistically, we get to an endgame that has little hope of coming together, as Barnabas and crew must somehow overcome that which we’ve made all but invincible. In order to manage any conclusion, things spin into the ludicrous in something like a Top Trumps silly plot event game that seems to never end.
While certainly never in the realm of that which hopes to enter the stratosphere of filmmaking achievements, Dark Shadows inched its way awfully close to becoming a film that might have been an instant classic, especially if we qualify that as being among the smarter comic romps. But, it hits a point where it gives up completely, and, painted into a corner as it finds itself approaching the conclusion, throws up its hands and storms off.