Dark Shadows is the type of film for which that overused and clunkingly clichéd phrase ‘darkly comic’ was first invented. It aspires to be very ‘darkly comic’. In one scene our protagonist (a vampire named Barnabus Collins, played by Johnny Depp) rips apart a group of innocent builders. In another we are laughing at his endearing attempts to fit into a 1970s family after being trapped in a coffin for nearly two-hundred years. Things are dark. Things are funny (to start with). This is typical Tim Burton territory.
But I’m very sad to say that this is not top-notch Burton. It is weak and messy and patchy Burton. Dark Shadows is one of his worst films, on a par with 2010’s ill-judged Alice in Wonderland feature.
After a lengthy and deliciously gothic pre-titles intro, which fills us in on the back-story of Depp’s character, we follow a young governess’s journey and introduction to the Collins family in 1972. They are all weird and include Michelle Pfeiffer (mother), Jonny Lee Miller (mother’s brother), Helena Bonham Carter (alcoholic child-psychiatrist), Chloe Grace Moretz (teenage daughter) and Gully McGrath (disturbed adopted boy).
The governess (played by Bella Heathcote) appears to be the lead character at the start, but is sidelined when Depp arrives and shakes up the family. They are understandably puzzled by the sight of a long-dead distant relation turning up and taking residence, but after some questioning they let him go about his business. This involves pumping life back into their dying seafood factory and attempting to fend off the deadly plottings of Eva Green – a witch he refused the advances of long ago.
The opening half of the film is a sumptuous celebration of Burton’s keen eye for gothic design and skill at direction. The humour in the screenplay, which is an adaptation of the American soap series of the same name, works well to begin with. But after about 45 minutes, things start to go very wrong.
The script, which is penned by Seth Grahame-Smith, starts to come apart at the hinges, as does Burton’s directing. The story becomes undisciplined, the humour awkward-bad rather than awkward-funny and the final climactic set-piece is a disappointing mess.
Although Depp is a fine actor, he ultimately fails to introduce much depth to his character, although this is hampered by the Grahame-Smith’s screenplay. His comic delivery is excellent, but the comedy he is forced to spout is hit-and-miss. A lot of the laughs rely of quite raunchy sex jokes which range from amusing innuendos to some very wince-inducing moments. Maybe this was intended, but it doesn’t make for a very consistent or enjoyable experience.
The acting from the supporting players is generally good, but one can’t shake off the feeling that they are all doing it in their sleep. The characters are not rich, detailed creations, but rather limply drawn people who wander in and out each scene as if hoping for an Adams Family remake. Pfeiffer, Green and Bonham Carter deserve better material.
I thought I was going to be able to declare Dark Shadows a tasty, creepy triumph. The first half of the picture impressed me, but the second half depressed me. What promised to be a chocolate box of spooky delights ended up becoming a broken shoebox full of dead spiders. Not very appetising, anticlimactic and low on laughs.
Darks Shadows (2012), directed by Tim Burton, is distributed in the UK by Warner Bros. Pictures, Certificate 12A.