With a film like Dark Shadows I have to spend a bit of time discussing where I’m coming from here and couching it. While I cannot claim to be an expert, I am a fan of the show and do have quite a fondness for it. Having said that, there will be no armchair direction or writing here make no mistake of that. I will gauge the film based on the direction and manner it was interpreted not how I would’ve preferred it, and I will be explicit in explaining why it still doesn’t work.
From the moment I saw the trailer I had a sense for what this film was going to try to be. It’s a rare case of a trailer being true to the tone of the finished product. What you get in this film is a very uneasy balance between horror elements and attempts at humor and self-parody. Essentially, it tries to be The Brady Bunch films, which are true to the tone and spirit of the show but poke fun at the show too.
What makes this different and not as successful is a disharmony in tone. It goes from a facsimile of a horror scene to forced humor. I should’ve counted attempted jokes for the percentage of success was very low. I literally laughed out loud thrice, once was a suggestive joke David (Gully McGrath) made about Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz). With the Brady films clearly it was always silly. How this would’ve worked better is either of two ways: One, be the kind of over-the-top horror the show was, which is humorous to some, or two, play it straight dramatically and tongue-in-cheek comedically. Instead, you could feel the gears shift and the sudden impetus “Must try and be funny now.” It’s one of the more forced comedies I’ve ever seen in that regard.
There are many Tim Burton movies I have loved. I am among the many who still have enough fondness for much of his work such that I will still come to see what he’s done. However, I’m not really angered by this turn so much as disappointed. Granted it’s not an original piece but I thought Dark Shadows and Tim Burton, what could possibly go wrong? The following did: The complete lack of tonal cohesion, the near glacial movement of the plot when there’s not an over-abundance of things going on, the thinness and simplification of characters.
Why is this one frustrating and not infuriating? I did like the performances for the the most part. Again, this is divorcing expectation and examining the actual content. However, it comes down to the milieu within which the players played. When the film is straight-up gothic-style horror it’s rather breathtaking. Those moments are few and far between but it shows the potential of the narrative had there been a sort of balance or reversal of tone.
Johnny Depp, who in his now long renaissance, is at times too big and too much the center of attention in certain films does well here. His Barnabas Collins is his own and I don’t begrudge him that, I just feel the performance would’ve been augmented further in a tale more worthy such an awesome vampire. For even in this rendition Barnabas deserves better.
Touching upon the Brady Bunch notion again there is the fish out of water aspect; the concept of the Brady films was that it was the 1990s and they were very much still stuck in the 1970s, while here Barnabas was in the 1970s after being interred in 1752. It plays the fish out of water but the film tries so hard with musical cues, other pop culture references and an Alice Cooper performance that is not up to his “Feed My Frankenstein” in Wayne’s World 20 years ago; that they just become tired, then trite and finally bothersome. We get it, it’s the 70s. Moving on.
Contrary to divorce where it’s only the children who suffer in a movie that’s bad it’s really only the kids who leave unscathed: Chloe Moretz doesn’t really have a lot to do here but shows a more mature side of her persona, which is easing and accelerating her transition from in-demand child actress to eventual A-List leading lady. Gully McGrath in sparing moments plays one of the more rounded characters in the film and shows a glimpse of his talent. Bella Heatcote, though not a child actress, is new talent who likely has much more to show in a more rounded role.
An example of a wasted, underdeveloped character in this film is that of Willie Loomis. Aside from being a weirdo his only other functions are being a stooge and a driver. Wonderful, really needed the new Freddy Kreuger for that part.
Partially to expiate the film its slowly moving, thin plot there’s some randomness thrown into the end of the film, which while are hat tips to the show are also slightly foreshadowed and only serve to prolong the cacophonous silliness that is the climax.
In the end, whether I agreed with it in principle or not, Dark Shadows made an attempt to do something different and it failed there also.