" Nobody goes into the valley of death. That’s why they call it the valley of death. "
— Grant Heslov, The Scorpion King

MRQE Top Critic

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The road Dark Shadows follows cuts straight through the heart of Tim Burton country, but it winds up being a dead end.

That ’70s Show

Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp)
Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp)

Tim Burton’s version of Dark Shadows gets off to an appropriately sober and somber start. The story begins in 1760 Liverpool as the Collins family sets off for the New World and establishes strong roots in Maine. The village of Collinsport is born with the stately castle of Collinwood overlooking the villagers from high on a mountain top.

As the Collins empire expands and wealth accumulates, Collinwood takes on more staff for upkeep.

The family’s success would ultimately become the family’s curse.

Young Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp, The Rum Diaries) loves ‘em and leaves ‘em. But one of his loves, a handmaiden, is a real witch. Unfortunately for Barnabas, that’s literally, not figuratively. And this witch, Angelique (Eva Green, Casino Royale), doesn’t take things demurely when Barnabas falls passionately in love with a villager named Josette (Bella Heathcote, In Time).

Nope. Angelique doesn’t take it well at all.

Josette is bewitched into a suicidal plunge into the ocean and poor Barnabas is cursed to live eternally as a vampire.

All’s great so far.

Then the ‘70s happen.

Not the 1770s. The 1970s.

Band of Vampires

At one point young Barnabas is advised that “family is the only real wealth.” It’s a key line that should offer some sort of payoff, but it’s a sentiment that’s quickly lost in the lackluster, anemic screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith, the talented – albeit uneven – author of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (which will hit screens this summer under the direction of Timur Bekmambetov).  Grahame-Smith shares the Dark Shadows story credit with frequent Burton collaborator and Boulder-born John August (Corpse Bride, Big Fish).

Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green)
Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green)

Given what Grahame-Smith and August have written in the past, there’s plenty of reason to expect at the least a decent story. But that’s this Dark Shadows’ biggest problem.

The story’s a yawner, a listless affair with no real sense of direction. And instead of following the played-straight mold of the TV series, this movie incarnation goes for limp laughs by turning Barnabas into a 20th century fish out of water, trying in vain to summon laughs with Depp’s use of stiff, formal olde English dialogue and Barnabas’ failure to adapt to his modern era surroundings after his coffin is unearthed by construction workers.

Too many of the laughs are forced and too much of the visual flourish that’s been a hallmark of Burton’s work is wasted on 1970s hairdos and costumes. Coming on the heels of the artful magnificence of Alice in Wonderland (with Depp), Dark Shadows is a confounding disappointment on many levels. It’s a kind of undead disappointment, a cinematic letdown that lives on in the mind as a lingering ghost of a cinematic what-might-have-been.

Let’s Do the Time Warp Again

When the opening credits roll, the appearance of Alice Cooper’s name lends hope for a nifty cameo, with the 64-year-old rock legend perhaps playing some sort of oddball character. Alas, the character he plays turns out to be none other than himself, a 24-year-old version of himself, as he stages a concert at Collinwood in 1972. Granted, Cooper’s aged well. But like so many other things in this Dark Shadows, the idea doesn’t work.

Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote)
Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote)

The concert isn’t funny. It isn’t sad, either. It just sits there on the screen, a struggling, writhing attempt at some sort of time warp.

The entire approach of focusing on the weirdness of the 1970s is wrongheaded.

Look at the other story elements: a family empire in the process of restoration, a cursed love resurrected in the form of schoolteacher Victoria (who bears a striking resemblance to Josette), a psychiatrist who’s more interested in turning herself into a vampire than helping the vampire return to humanity, and a commercial and romantic rivalry that spans the centuries.

This movie could’ve been cool had the players played it straight. The darkness, the moodiness, the tensions; the ageless, timeless battle between a vampire and a witch all would’ve been better served as an experiment in extreme goth.

Such a movie should’ve been possible from the guy who directed Sleepy Hollow and so elegantly adapted Sweeney Todd for the big screen (both with Johnny Depp).

Collinsport

Chatter of Burton wanting to make a movie based on the Dark Shadows TV series (with Depp) began years ago. That series, a gothic soap opera of creepy characters and high drama, ran from 1966-1971. Heck, it even had theremin-heavy theme music.

Putting things in some perspective, Dark Shadows started airing as the era of horror-inspired sitcoms The Addams Family and The Munsters began to wind down. Rod Serling’s Night Gallery accompanied Dark Shadows in an effort to take back the night and return it to its rightful place of eternal humorlessness. In some respects, the original Dark Shadows is a spiritual ancestor to Twin Peaks.

It’s clearly an appealing morgue of material perfectly suited for Burton’s sensibilities, and those sensibilities most certainly aren’t for everybody. Burton can tackle dark drama (1989’s Batman) and he knows how to evoke a sense of time and place with a large dose of affection for his subject matter (Ed Wood, once again with Depp).

In this case, though, Burton chose to go for a more comedic angle. Keeping in mind Burton also directed Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, that in itself isn’t a bad thing. At the very least, it’s clear Burton does have an affection for the characters and he shies away from insulting the source material. He doesn’t really make fun of the characters, but he’s not laughing with them, either.

As it stands, the creatively fertile and financially lucrative teaming of Burton and Depp has hit a bump in the road. Dark Shadows is simply a disappointing misfire.