Given his reputation as something of a unique, visionary director, it’s surprising really just how many of Tim Burton’s pictures are based on pre-existing properties. While he has past form in creating greatness from well-known stories (‘Batman’, ‘Sleepy Hollow’) the weakest of his recent efforts have all been unnecessary updates of stories we already know (‘Planet of the Apes’, ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, ‘Alice in Wonderland’), that haven’t really brought much more to the table than production design.
‘Dark Shadows’ has something going for it already then, in that while it is based on an old soap opera (with 1000+ episodes no less) most people (myself included) are less likely to be familiar with the source material.
So what is ‘Dark Shadows’ exactly? A horror movie? A comedy? A family drama? It’s a bit of all of them really, with some action too, but never focused enough to find a comfortable tone to stick with.
‘Dark Shadows’ begins with a wonderfully designed (what else?) sequence set in the 1700s, reminiscent of ‘Sleepy Hollow’ to set up the two central characters, evil witch Eva Green and vampire Johnny Depp.
From there we fast forward to 1972 when the rest of the film is set, as Depp’s vampire is awakened after two centuries in a coffin underground to find his family business in crisis.
Despite being played by a number of recognisable actors, the characters now populating the family home all don’t have much to do, save for Michelle Pfeiffer’s matriarch.
The main plot focuses on the rivalry between Depp and Green’s witch, who’s still around, and sadly this is just not enough to sustain the film satisfactorily.
A lot of the comedy comes from Depp’s 18th century vampire discovering and being thoroughly confused by many aspects of 1970s life, ranging from tarmac to lava lamps. It’s does work well at first but starts to get a little repetitive, particularly during a wasted Alice Cooper cameo.
Depp is clearly having a blast playing the role and has some pretty great dialogue, but the film seems a little unsure of how to present him to the audience. On the one hand he’s clearly the hero of the piece, working hard to restore his family’s honour taken from them by a villainous, vengeful witch, but on the other he is shown violently killing a number of innocent people.
Several of the ‘horror’ moments such as the aforementioned killings and indeed a couple of surprisingly racy ones don’t sit well with the broad comedy which often feels like it’s out of a family film.
The usual Burton troupes are all present and correct, the gothic production design and visuals are as fabulous as you’d expect, though Danny Elfman has less to do than usual as a number of key scenes are instead soundtracked with 70s pop and rock songs.
A fun but muddled film, an improvement on ‘Alice in Wonderland’ but not a return to form for Burton.