With Chicago weather, it’s almost like we live in a Tim Burton-esque world. Evanston is just a dark, cold, murky town filled with people who look like they haven’t seen the sun in years, much like Collinsport, Maine, the town where Dark Shadows is set.
The nature of the film isn’t all that surprising, given Burton’s storied history of creepy, yet delightful films: Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and Alice in Wonderland, to name a few. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter star among other big names, and Danny Elfman scores an eerily beautiful soundtrack, as usual.
The eeriness follows Barnabus Collins (Depp), a cursed vampire who is awakened after nearly 200 years in a coffin, everywhere he goes. In 1972, construction workers accidentally free him while digging around, so he sets out to restore honor to the Collins family name in the face of his archrival and former lover, Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green).
Other familiar faces include an oddly sex- and power-crazed psychiatrist, Dr. Hoffman (Bonham Carter), and Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), the woman of the house (read: dusty old mansion) who takes Barnabus under her wing. And, any horror film – or in this case, pseudo-horror film – wouldn’t be complete without a couple of young, dead-eyed children. Coupled with Burton’s on-point directing, the cast performs well in what is a self-aware, mildly scary contemporary horror movie, in fictional Netflix terminology.
But at the end of the day, the movie isn’t just about Burton’s historic charm or Depp’s ability to seamlessly transform into a new off-the-wall character. The average moviegoer will be able to predict those things walking into the theater, so they don’t have the potential to make or break this movie.
What makes Dark Shadows less enjoyable than Burton's previous body of work is primarily a message that Burton beats the audience over the head with: Family is the most important thing in the world, more important than even the grotesqueness of having fangs or the attractiveness of wealth. This overbearing dimension to the film and a rather simplistic plotline make for a relatively disappointing experience. Note keyword: “relatively.”
The bright spots in the film come from humor, both clean and dirty. Barnabus, perpetually confused by the grooviness of the current decade, refers to a red lava lamp as a “pulsating blood urn.” Another chuckle-worthy moment came while discussing “balls,” where the old-fashioned Barnabus was referring to hosting a fancy party and the rest of the people around the table were – well, you know – not. Exchanges like these are amusing, but obviously not inventive. Even a guest appearance by Alice Cooper isn’t totally captivating.
The one great takeaway is that Burton manages to draw in a crowd for a vampire-related nugget of pop culture that doesn’t even vaguely echo Twilight, True Blood or any other teen-crazed, undead sensations of today. It’s not kitschy or stale in the slightest.
Overall, viewers shouldn’t walk in expecting an Edward Scissorhands. Burton misses the mark with this one, but not by too much – after all, he is still Tim Burton and that means any movie he makes is watchable and mildly enjoyable, at its worst. Dark Shadows may be a dark smudge on a pretty impeccable resume, but that doesn’t mean it won’t make for a somewhat entertaining night out. Go forth into the often dreery Evanston weather and step into Collinsport, but don't keep your hopes too high.