At this point people pretty much know what they're getting when they buy a ticket to a Tim Burton movie. The film will star Johnny Depp and Burton's wife Helena Bonham Carter. The score will be by Danny Elfman. The characters will all be pale. The scenery will be going for a "twisted but beautiful" look that in the end is just ugly. The film will have a gruesome tone, but will nonetheless go after the family market. Burton hasn't done much to deviate from this formula in the past decade, and in fairness it's worked just fine for him commercially. But it's also earned him a reputation as a cookie-cutter filmmaker, a reputation that "Dark Shadows" only reinforces.
Depp stars as Barnabas Collins, a wealthy industrialist in 18th-century Maine. He throws away the love of a servant girl named Angelique (Eva Green) to date someone in his own social class. This turns out to be a mistake, as Angelique is a witch who does not take kindly to being scorned. She assassinates Barnabas's parents and forces his new love off a cliff. She then turns Barnabas into a vampire so he'll have to be lonely for all eternity. Then she has him buried alive in a coffin for 200 years. When Barnabas is finally freed by some errant workmen, it is the 1960s and everything about the world is strange to him.
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He reclaims residence in his family's mansion, now inhabited by his descendants. Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) is the most level-headed and tries to keep the dysfunctional family intact. Her daughter, Carolyn (Chloe Grace-Moretz), is an angsty teenager with lycanthropy issues. Her brother, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), is a selfish sleazebag who has written off his emotionally vulnerable son (Gulliver McGrath) as a weirdo because he sees his dead mother everywhere. The family is so unstable that they've had to hire a live-in psychiatrist (Helena Bonham Carter). There's also a sullen caretaker (Jackie Earle Haley) and a governess (Bella Heathcote) who bears a striking resemblance to Barnabas's true love.
The plot sees Barnabas battle Angelique, herself an immortal industrialist who is doing much better than the Collins family. After two centuries, she still has the hots for Barnabas, but will settle for once again destroying his family and sending him back to being buried alive until he learns his lesson. Barnabas just wants a shot at a normal life, tough to do considering he's out of touch with the times (occasionally funny) and also a bloodthirsty vampire who makes no effort to change his nature (not funny and frankly irredeemable — other people shouldn't have to die just so he can be happy).
The movie leaves out a lot of information about the characters to the point where it's distracting. For example, we don't know how the present-day Collins family is even related to Barnabas. The movie makes it seem like Barnabas essentially ends the family bloodline when he gets buried without producing an heir. An Internet search leads to a very complex Collins family tree, but the viewer can't be going to the Internet every time they have a simple question. A two-hour vampire comedy should not make its audience feel so left out.
"Dark Shadows" is based on a 1960s soap opera (which was also rebooted in the 1990s) and it plays like a pilot for a television show. It thinks that people will keep tuning in for the interesting characters even if the first adventure isn't that exciting. This approach might work on free TV with another episode coming up the next day, but not as a movie series where any possible sequel is years off and people will be hesitant to spend their hard-earned money after this lackluster original. The film isn't likely to kick off a successful franchise and by itself it is just another Tim Burton disappointment.
One and a Half Stars out of Five.
"Dark Shadows" is rated PG-13 for comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking. Its running time is 113 minutes.
Contact Bob Garver at email@example.com.