Dark Shadows – Review

Dark shadows – Review

Review by FilmFellaDarren – 5.5/10

Once upon a time, Tim Burton had the ability to transport audiences to enchanting gothic fairy-tale other-worlds.  His films had such a unique ethereal atmosphere to them, so unmistakably his own style, that he was almost considered to be something of an auteur. That time has long since passed due to the directors near narcissistic insistence that every vaguely dark fairy-tale or slightly grim story ever written would benefit from Burton’s gothic stylistics. It isn’t just the colour scheme that has become monochromatic in Burton’s filmmaking. His countless remakes were horribly uninspired, and now he has reduced his once leftfield style into a formula, his inability to tell a story has been exposed. He ruined the story of Alice and Wonderland in his last film and the less said about his version of Planet of the apes and Charlie and the chocolate factory the better.

A new release from Burton then doesn’t exactly hold the same promise as it did in the eighties and nineties. Dark shadows on paper seems yet further evidence that Burton’s shallow creative pool has completely dried up and he has given up on being an artist and is instead content to churn out bland, slightly kooky films with mass appeal for the Hollywood machine  and Emo teenagers, who naively think Burton is edgy.

All the ingredients are thrown into the pot for the standard Burton recipe: a reworking of a slightly twisted old story (this is a remake of a gothic TV show aired in America in the sixties); gothic art direction; slightly off kilter humour, a moody Danny Elfman score and of course, Johnny Depp in white face-paint, eager to ham it up for his biggest fan. All the usual Burton flavours are there then, but does Burton throw in any new ingredients to spice the formula up a bit, or is it more of the same half-baked filmmaking? Well there is nothing new here, it has all the same problems Burton’s recent films have, but the director does attempt to go back to his roots on some level, attempting, as he does here, to marry the wry black comedic tone of Beetle Juice with a plot that is a bit like Edward Scissorhands, in that it features a strange, offbeat pasty faced character, in a fish-out of water culture clash plot.

The opening scenes, setting up how Depp’s character Barnabas Collins acquired his vampire curse, race by at such a fast pace that they almost seem like one of those episode recaps on a television show: previously, on Dark shadows – Barnabas Collins angered a powerful witch, who was jealous of a relationship he was having with a girl, so she put a spell on the girl causing her suicide and then condemned Barnabas to an eternity as a vampire. Not content with this, she stirred up the angry monster hating lynch mobs, who buried Barnabus deep in a coffin, where he was forced to stare into the dark abyss for 200 years.  Those story points seem to unfold even more quickly than they did in the trailer, presumably as the setup is far too tragic to be a launch point for a black comedy.

When Barnabas is randomly awoken in 1972, he is surprised to discover that the world has changed. What will a two-hundred year old dormant vampire make of the seventies?

To be fair to Burton and Depp, the scenes after Barnabas awakes, meets the descendants of his family and tries to make sense of the many changes the seventies have brought are genuinely funny. Barnabas’ stiff upper lip old English, is obviously totally at odds with the time he enters and hilarity at times does ensue. Sure, the culture clash humour is not exactly original but it is amusing and the film does become good fun. But the high laugh count comes at a price…

Tonally the film is absolutely all over the place. Burton veers sharply and totally jarringly from a rather grim tragic tone to goofy comedy. One minute Depp’s character is charmingly off-beat, quipping dryly – the next he is quenching the insatiable thirst for blood – built up over two hundred years – by feasting on a group of likeable, unsuspecting citizens. It feels weird for the wrong reasons and you are never quite sure how you feel about the character. Burton fails to find a smooth balance between light and dark and he can’t decide whether he wants the film to be a sinister horror movie, a supernatural drama, or a knock-about Adam’s family style kooky comedy. The story is consequently an uneven mess, that attempts to generate a string of gags one minute and then hopes you are going to take it seriously as a horror film the next, then it leaps back to knock-about comedy again, and then manically goes back to an unfrightening horror drama. The original series had no such problems as it was always designed to be a creepy gothic horror series; Burton’s decision to bring humour to proceedings has seriously damaged the narrative so here the story of Barnabas makes no sense whatsoever.  Barnabas would make more sense as a character if he was a vengeful unstoppable villain and the film was a full on horror. As it stands, it is a slightly quirky, but illogical film.

A point highlighted by an absolutely ridiculous climax to the film where Burton literally loses the plot. We are talking Van Helsing levels of overblown nonsense here. The humour is completely forgotten about as the film goes for a ludicrous and totally dull action set-piece that just doesn’t work at all. Suddenly, previously powerful characters are seen to be pathetically and inexplicably fallible, characters not involved in the film before unaccountably become key to the story and werewolves make a late and perfunctory appearance. It’s the worst abuse of werewolf mythology ever, far worse than anything in the Twi-shite saga even. The werewolf scene is just thrown in there with no regard for how it relates to the story. It’s a muddled incomprehensible and infuriatingly stupid ending – the worse ending I have seen in a long time.

Other problems plaguing the film are a collection of pointless un-engaging characters, particularly Helen Bonham Carter’s character – which is a very thin role. The most noticeable thing about her is that she appears to be wearing a bizarre prosthetic suit. If they had spent as much time padding the character out as they did physically padding Carter herself, they might have had a half decent character. Burton clearly can’t see his wife objectively in this one. Also, Chloë Grace Moretz is again terrible. She threatened to ruin Hugo with her awful, hammy acting and once again she shows she has all the acting ability of a day time soap opera actress. Her attempts at mysterious teen are cringe-worthy in this – her character should have been confined to the cutting room floor.

Depp has been off form for a while, particularly when collaborating with his old chum Burton, but actually his performance here is actually quite entertaining; his comic timing, his deadpan character and his handling of the old English style of the dialogue are spot on. He has clearly been studying the monster mannerisms of the vampire greats like Max Schreck and Bela Lugosi as his performance owes a lot to classic early horror cinema. Eva Green is electrifying as the evil witch who curses Barnabas. She is the only one in the film who pulls off the balance between playful and menacing.

Ultimately though, Dark Shadows is more proof that Tim Burton has become a sloppy filmmaker, who no longer cares about telling an engaging and coherent story. There are so many plot holes in the story here – you get the impression Burton was more likely to obsess over making sure every visual detail was meticulously executed, rather than address the many illogical narrative problems that damage the story in this silly gothic nonsense. This is funny and entertaining in places but, it’s the humour that scuppers any chance of the narrative working as a satisfactory story – loose story strands are left dangling like vampires hanging from the dank roof of a darkened cave. Dark Shadows really shows yet again that Tim Burton is now a limited filmmaker who is more concerned with art direction than actual direction.

If you like this, revisit

Ed Wood

Death becomes her

Dellamorte Dellamore


About Filmfella Darren
Film critic, writer and long-time cinema appreciator. I write about cinema matters, because cinema matters. Like your clothes and your laptops, my articles were made in Taiwan.

7 Responses to Dark Shadows – Review

  1. Mark Walker says:

    Great review man. I think I’ll be avoiding this one. I’m a bit sick of Burton to be honest.

    • Filmfella Darren says:

      Hey Mark, thanks for your comment. Yeah I think a lot of people feel like you about Burton. I used to have tremendous respect for Burton as he did make unique films, but he has sold out to such a degree that he has completely lost his way. He used to struggle to tell a story but now he isn’t even trying. Did you like his early films? My favourite Tim Burton film was Ed Wood. I think my favourite Johnny Depp film was also Ed Wood. You might be interested to read my review of Burton’s Alice in Wonderland so I’ve attached it here. Needless to say, I didn’t like the film. My critique on Burton is even more vitriolic in this here review. http://www.thefilmfellas.com/alice-in-wonderland-review-by-darren-moverley.php

      • Mark Walker says:

        I used to really like his stuff. Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood were great but he just got a bit samey. I really like Big Fish though, that was a good change of direction from him. Believe it or not, I actually liked Alice in Wonderland. I didn’t expect to but it pleasantly surprised me.

  2. Filmfella Darren says:

    I found this clip on you tube of the original American tv series of Dark Shadows – it makes for pretty interesting viewing. Now fair enough, Tim Burton’s film is funny, in places. But Burton’s jovial approach is very different to the tone of the original, and when you watch this clip you can see just why making the story a comedy, has made the narrative in the film fall apart – and just why tonally the film is so muddled. The story was meant to be eerie and creepy – you can see that it could have been a far more gripping film if Burton hadn’t gone for such a kitsch style. He claims to be a gothic director but he always has a tone in his films that undermine all the work he does to make his visuals so moody. You can also tell from this clip that Burton has taken some of the story strands of the original and put them into the film without really thinking through the logic of how they would connect to the story. You would have had to really be a fan of this series to understand what Burton was trying to do with the werewolf subplot, and the moment where that matriarchal ghost makes an appearance. In this clip you can see that they could have been a really suspenseful subplot, in the film it’s there as an afterthought. Clearly Burton has tried to condense so many subplots into his film without using his imagination to really consider how they would all fit in. He spent a lifetime watching old horror films and tv series, but he’s learned nothing from them in regards to how to tell a story. After watching this I feel even more strongly that Burton jan his writing team, just didn’t bother to think the story through, hoping the audience wouldn’t too. But I did Burton and your ineptitude as a filmmaker is horribly exposed when someone takes the time to look at the long lost original. I would also like to add that the terrible climax to the film reeks of producer influence, but that doesn’t get you off the hook Tim Burton.

  3. yaykisspurr says:

    I find Burton is not a talented storyteller in any sense of the word…he’s great at imagining an already developed “anyworld” and putting his gothic spin on it but any freshness has since passed. It’s sad really as Depp was great in Dark Shadows and they do work well together; they seem to understand each others vision. If only Burton would team up with a really talented writer as well… I agree with you on so many of your points. Cheer!

  4. TomThornton says:

    Thanks for this interesting take on Burton-ism. I’m currently beginning to write about movies critically on my blog and expertise like yours is certainly an inspiration.

  5. I didn’t like this film. It was billed as a comedy horror film but I didn’t really find it remotely funny. And why does BUrton have to employ his wife in every film he makes?!

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