In the year 1750, Joshua and Naomi Collins, with young son Barnabas, set sail from England to start a new life in America, where they build a fishing empire in the coastal Maine town that comes to carry their name: Collinsport. Two decades pass and Barnabas (Johnny Depp) has the world at his feet. The master of Collinwood Manor, Barnabas is rich, powerful and an inveterate playboy...until he makes the grave mistake of falling in love with a beauty named Josette DuPres (Bella Heathcote) and breaking the heart of Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green). A witch in every sense of the word, Angelique dooms him to a fate worse than death-turning him into a vampire, and then burying him...alive.
Nearly two centuries later, Barnabas is inadvertently freed from his tomb and emerges into the very changed world of 1972, a stranger in an even stranger time. Returning to Collinwood Manor, he finds that his once-grand estate has fallen into ruin, and the dysfunctional remnants of the Collins family have fared little better, each harboring their own dark secrets. Family matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) is the one person Barnabas entrusts with the truth of his identity. But his rather odd and anachronistic behavior immediately raises the suspicions of the live-in psychiatrist, Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), who has no idea what kind of problems she's really digging up.
As Barnabas sets out to restore his family name to its former glory, one thing stands in his way: Collinsport's leading denizen, who goes by the name Angie...and who bears a striking resemblance to a very old acquaintance of Barnabas Collins. Also residing in Collinwood Manor are Elizabeth's ne'er-do-well brother, Roger Collins, (Jonny Lee Miller); her rebellious teenage daughter Carolyn Stoddard (Chloe Grace Moretz); and Roger's precocious 10-year-old son, David Collins (Gully McGrath). The long suffering caretaker of Collinwood is Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley), and new to the Collins' employ is David's nanny, Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), who is, mysteriously, the mirror image of Barnabas' one true love, Josette.
By one definition, Pastiche is a confused mixture or jumble. Dark Shadows can then be described as employing pastiche, and not to the benefit of the other definition, wherein it is an artistic work consisting of a medley of pieces taken from various sources. The latter definition can be seen as positive praise, the former disastrous. Dark Shadows may not be a complete disaster but it is far from worthy of praise.
Dark Shadows begins in the year 1760 when the Collin's family leaves England for the New World, their son Barnabas in tow. The family prospers in Maine, having a town named after them and a successful canning business at the wharf. They build a grand mansion on the top of the hill overlooking their idyllic town and live happily--until Barnabas (Johnny Depp) grows up and has an affair with their maid Angelique (Eva Green), who just happens to be a witch. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, as Barnabas does not share the love Angelique feels for him; he is in love with the somewhat spacey-dow-eyed Josette (Bella Heathcote). Angelique will have her revenge, by turning Barnabas into a vampire and burying him alive. Dark Shadows spends the good-portion of the first act establishing the aforementioned history of the Collins family, and Barnabas leads the story in voiceover. The introduction is very gothic-fairytale, torn from the pages of an old book and placed on the screen. This entire feeling changes the moment Barnabas finds himself freed from the coffin that has been his tomb for nearly 200 years, awaking in the year 1972 to devour a group of construction workers because he is indeed hungry after all the years in a box.
Barnabas is a vampire and he needs to feed, but he is also a gentleman and you need not be afraid of him. Unless of course you aim to hurt his family, then he will happily bleed you dry. The strong familial ties Barnabas feels are discovered when he meets his new "modern" family. How they are indeed related to Barnabas is not explained; they share the same last name and live in his old home, that is enough to validate the bloodline. The family consists of matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), her brother Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller), teenager Carolyn Stoddard (Chloe Grace Moretz), and youngster David Collins (Gulliver McGrath). Adding to the mix is Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), a woman who has been employed to help young David with his problems--he imagines his mother's ghost speaks to him. There is also the newest addition, a nanny for David, Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), a woman who suspiciously looks like Barnabas' lost love Josette. This is made clear by the camera framing Victoria in front of Josette's portrait on the wall (in case the viewer has had a momentary lapse of memory from minutes prior). Clearly Barnabas' arrival causes quite a stir, since he is the exact image of a portrait on the wall as well. His eccentricities and complete naivete about all things in the modern world also arise suspicion. The fact that his face is a ghastly white with eyes sunken in black and fangs does not seem to make anyone blink. The long fingernails must be attributed to him being English...foreigners are an unexplainable lot in America. There isn't much interesting about Barnabas connecting with the family, or his instant attraction towards Josette look-a-like Victoria. Rebuilding the family business is boring fare. Made even more tedious as the film never decides where it is going, or gives the viewer a distinct impression it will ever lead anywhere. Dark Shadows is pastiche gone wrong; a bumbling mess of melodrama, romance, comedy, and vengeance.
The only element of the film that saves it from falling into a deep abyss of nonsensical tedium is the villain, Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green)--call her Angie because this is not the 1700s anymore. Angie is the same witch that cursed Barnabas, having survived all of these years from black magic. She is a desperate soul, longing for a love she will never have and therefore bent on damning the Collins family for eternity. Barnabas clearly played with the wrong woman's heart. When Angie arrives on screen for the first time in the present she is a hellcat of power and sexiness. These two traits will remain with her up until the very end. The end finding her writhing on the floor, putting her mangled body back together in a scene reminiscent of Meryl Streep's Madeline Ashton in Death Becomes Her. Except Angie is made of glass, a nice nod to the fragility of her character shrouded by severity. Pinning Barnabas against Angie makes for decent entertainment, albeit broken consistently by the need to try and establish a deeper meaning to Barnabas' life with his family. Or the futile attempt to add character arcs at the very end during the finale that simply leads a viewer to complete dismay. Had Dark Shadows been given the direction by Tim Burton wherein it decided exactly what it wanted to be, exactly what mood to set, and did not have a third-act that completely departs from the more lighthearted set-up beforehand, it would have been saved from being what it is, that confused mixture or jumble that is pastiche.
All eyes tend to fall on Johnny Depp whenever he makes his way on screen. Dark Shadows is no exception, as Depp's Barnabas Collins is great fun as the apologetic vampire who wants nothing more than to re-build his family legacy and re-discover the love he lost. Depp even manages to make the most out of the fish-out-of-water scenario the film occasionally touches upon with his character, having him salivate over a Lava Lamp, recoil in mild alarm at the sight of a Troll doll, or the sound the Operation game makes when you touch the sensor. It is clear Depp is having an incredible amount of fun playing the character of Barnabas, specially when he channels the late-great Max Schreck of Nosferatu (1922) during his transformation from man to vampire. Amidst a film foiled by the fact that is lacks clear focus, Depp remains from beginning to end an enigmatic presence to watch. The other supporting characters played by Chloe Grace Moretz (Carolyn Stoddard), Helena Bonham Carter (Dr. Julia Hoffman), Jackie Earle Haley (Willie Loomis), Jonny Lee Miller (Roger Collins), Gulliver McGrath (David Collins), and Bella Heathcote (Victoria Winters) are not given the slightest opportunity to stand-out against Depp's Barnabas, or the story-arcs to make them memorable.
All is not lost with the other characters besides Depp's Barnabas; arguably the real scene stealer in Dark Shadows is Eva Green as the evil, love-struck, hyper-sexualized, curse wielding witch Angelique Bouchard. Audiences may not be very familiar with Green's previous work, although she has been acting in films for the greater part a decade, as a bond girl in the big-budget Casino Royale or showcasing her talents in independent fare with Womb. Eva is breathtakingly gorgeous, and her acting skills are just as strong as her physical features--she has eyes that may pierce your soul with a mere glance. Going head-to-head with Johnny Depp on screen is no easy fete, as one could easily get lost in the shadows, as many of the cast of Dark Shadows do--even the just as talented Michelle Pfeiffer who is grossly underused throughout the film as matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard. Eva Green is the exception. She plays the villain, and she does it with such blatant evilness, mixed together with sultry seduction that far never exceeds the desperation in her eyes you immediately fall under her spell. With all of the ways the film itself disappoints, the two main characters of Depp's Barnabas and Green's Angelique more than make up for it with their performances. The two together make a great pair, whether they are participating in rough vamp-on-witch foreplay or making evil-eyes at one another across a desk.
There are merely a handful of directors working today that the term "auteur" may be used to describe. Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, Clint Eastwood, and the favorably different, off-kilter stylings on screen of Tim Burton, to name but a few. Dark Shadows is Tim Burton's seventeenth feature film as director. It shall be remembered as the film where, quite possibly, an impostor used his name for Dark Shadows does not feel like a Tim Burton picture. Quite the opposite really, as he neglects to establish a mood in Dark Shadows or create a story with a solid foundation that does not need rely on the occasional eccentricities of the character's. Every Burton picture has eccentric characters, performing hyperbolically or disproportionately to the normal state of an individual--it is part of the charm of his movies. In Dark Shadows there are plenty of characters, but none with a specific direction given for their character. Similar to the entire film the story is never conceived of fully, or shown to be moving in a specific direction. The unnecessary inclusion of character traits, more so in the third act than before, and awkward sex scenes appear out of place causing disruptions. They also create confusion wherein a viewer does not know whether they exist to provoke laughter or heighten the melodrama. The fault here could fall on first-time screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith; to fault an unseasoned writer whose script is in the hands of an auteur is preposterous. Burton is well aware of what makes for a great film from page-to-screen; his attention on Dark Shadows script was obviously distracted.
Tim Burton's films always have an ever present mood, of the darker sort whether they are tragic love stories as with Edward Scissorhands and Corpse Bride, toying with the repercussions of death and revenge in Beetlejuice or Batman, or the misguided fantastical horrors of growing up (or refusing too) with Alice In Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. There has never been a Tim Burton film that did not evoke mood, and more often than not it was of the darker melancholy type, even in such a film as Pee-wee's Big Adventure. Dark Shadows does not fit into any of the typical themes/moods/tones, or the like, of a Tim Burton picture. It is not a dark comedy, or strictly a melodrama. It is a tragic romance, but with a character who is consumed by passions for many and led astray on more than one occasion--without regret, or apologies. The bond of family embroiled in dysfunction, as seen previously in Burton's Big Fish, is present but the story does not aim to resolve the familial problems. The solution in Dark Shadows is to weed out the bad seeds, ignore the angst, and grasp onto the one signifying element everyone can agree is of the most importance...money. The Collins family may be willing to fight to protect each other, yet their bond is nothing more than a plot device thrown in at the last moment to save the film from being self-centered.
Tim Burton may be one of the great directors, and one who will be remembered and admired by filmmakers for generations to come. No one is perfect, and there is not a single director who has a perfect slate of films during his career--even Alfred Hitchcock fell off the wagon with Topaz in 1969. The tragedy of Dark Shadows for Tim Burton is all of the possibilities the film held because of the fantastic cast he assembled, the grandiose production design by Rick Heinrichs (The Big Lebowski, Fargo, Sleepy Hollow), depth-defying and eye-catching cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), and the musical talent of Danny Elfman (Rango, Alice In Wonderland). All of the elements were there, aside perhaps the less-than polished screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith--except the story overall showed great potential. Burton lost his way with Dark Shadows; it is forgivable, but will not be forgettable by a viewer who seeks enjoyment from the film, or another turn inside a Tim Burton created world.
May 11, 2012