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Barnabas Collins is the latest in a long line of Tim Burton heroes who are tragically but picturesquely disabled such that they cannot satisfy the ones they love—and also the latest in an only-slightly-shorter line of those heroes played by Johnny Depp. Burton himself has such a disability; in the director’s case, it’s the inability to sustain the imagination required to end a movie as interestingly as it begins. Dark Shadows is yet another Burton movie that goes completely off the rails with an overblown and incoherent action climax that turns the audience’s chuckles into yawns. Tragic.
Burton’s Dark Shadows is based on the TV series of the same name, a daytime soap that ran on ABC from 1966 to 1971 and is now regarded as a cult classic. In our vampire-obsessed pop-culture moment, there’s vast potential to have fun with the idea of a campy supernatural soap opera. Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith have a tiny bit of that fun, and then they start blowing things up.
In the film, Collins is turned into a vampire in the Colonial era by comely serving wench/witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), who he spurns for a woman he loves (a perfectly cast Bella Heathcote). When construction workers unearth Collins’s coffin in 1972, he finds that his family’s fishing empire has taken a turn for the worse due to two centuries of stiff (so to speak) competition from a company founded and still run by the deathless Bouchard. (The Collins family must have good insurance, since it seems oddly laborious for Bouchard to ruin the family by means of market forces rather than by simply—as the witch demonstrates the ability to do—sending their properties up in smoke.)
After an appropriately Gothic prelude, Dark Shadows peaks briefly and early as Barnabas acclimates himself to the Me Decade. Though Grahame-Smith is lacking in the storytelling department, the screenwriter has a lot of fun weaving high-diction dialogue for Depp to spout as he discovers television and hippies and Erich Segal. Soon, though, the vampire falls for the nanny (Heathcote again), and Bouchard looks to repeat her kill-one-and-coffin-the-other trick. Awkward sex and boring violence ensue.
Gene Siskel had an excellent question he’d pose regarding movies: Is this movie more entertaining than a documentary about the same actors having lunch? Dark Shadows suggests another question: Could your local improv comedy troupe do a better job with this material if given the same premise and instructed to riff on it for 90 minutes? I’ll be they could, especially if you threw in that $100 million budget.