Back to the Grave … Again

Courtesy of Warner Bros

“Dark Shadows” follows a formula that director Tim Burton has been adhering to as of late: an already existing creepy story with an ample amount of quirk, coupled with a moody atmosphere, amplified with a Danny Elfman score, enhanced with costumes by designer Colleen Atwood and –– last but not least –– starring Johnny Depp and Burton’s partner Helena Bonham Carter, one of whom wears white facial makeup. Indeed, the whole thing sounds like a film Burton can do, or better yet, one he’s already done.

OK, perhaps that suggestion goes a bit too far, but there’s still no denying that there’s a subtle current of laziness running through the veins of this latest Burton flick. Unfortunately, it gets worse; a formulaic Burton film is somewhat bearable, but a disarrayed one teeters toward the unforgivable ––  and that’s what “Dark Shadows” is.

The heart of Collinsport, Maine in the 18th century, Barnabas Collins (Depp) is rich, powerful and content, but his life crumbles when he breaks the heart of Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), a witch. Spurned, she cruelly curses him by turning him into a vampire and having him buried alive.

Nearly two centuries later, Barnabas is unintentionally freed from his grave and emerges in the very changed world of 1972. He returns to Collinwood Manor, finding it in ruin and inhabited by his very dysfunctional descendants. He vows to bring the Collins family back to its former glory, but Angelique, still alive and well, has other plans in store for him.

One would expect that “Dark Shadows,” based on the gothic soap opera that was quite popular from the mid-’60s to the early ’70s, should ideally be adapted for the big screen with utmost care, considering that both Burton and Depp are avowed fans of the series. To say that it isn’t is quite the understatement –– the approach to the story, which is a mess in every sense of the word, is so half-assed to the point where it drags the entire picture down with it.

Brushing consistency aside, the film never seems assured about what its identity and purpose is. It’s clear that humor and gothic somberness are at play here, but there never is a balance between the two, as the film totters from one to the other throughout. Right when the narrative has the leeway to move forward and develop its dark and serious aspects, it resorts to rather cheap fish-out-of-the-water comedy to show how out of touch Barnabas is with his now-modern surroundings. The result is a severely disjointed story that offers short-lived satisfaction and nothing else.

Out of all the opportunities to miss, “Dark Shadows” misses an absolute sitter with the development of the Collins family, which consists of matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz), her brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller) and his son David (Gulliver McGrath), all of whom are said to possess dark secrets of their own. Sounds like a fascinating bunch –– to learn more about them is a priority, yeah? Well, then, it says a lot when the story instead devotes more time developing two other minor characters, Dr. Hoffman (Carter) and Victoria (Bella Heathcote), the Collins’ psychiatrist and David’s governess respectively. Doing the opposite would have made the climactic third act much more sense and tied up any loose ends regarding the family.

That being said, the quality of the performances really depends on how well the characters are developed. Depp takes on his role of a vampire (it’s surprising how he hasn’t played one yet) with great relish, twirling his elongated fingers for greater effect. Green takes sultry to another level, continually emphasizing Angelique’s sexuality with amusing results. Carter is appropriately deadpan as the sarcastic Dr. Hoffman, and Heathcote timidly holds herself well among her more famous co-stars. The rest of the cast show glimpses of promise, but are criminally and cruelly underused.

Like most other Burton films, “Dark Shadows” proves more than formidable when it comes to the overall look and feel. Atwood’s costume work is as fantastic as ever, the gray landscapes are shot confidently and the gothic tone is kept carefully balanced with a cheerful ’70s vibe, thanks to Elfman’s score.

What should be a walk in the park for Burton and Co. turns out to be nothing better than mere clutter. There’s certainly some hard work put into “Dark Shadows,” but none of it went to where it was needed the most. Barnabas should’ve stayed in his coffin for a little while longer. He is immortal, after all.

Rating: 2 out of 5