With rare exceptions, Tim Burton’s movies in the past decade have involved existing properties given the Tim Burton polish, with the veteran filmmaker adding his goth-cute aesthetic on top of familiar source material like Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd and Alice in Wonderland. The Burton brand has become very valuable to movie studios, with his movies cumulatively grossing more than $3 billion worldwide, but as an artist Burton has been rather stagnant in recent years. His new adaptation of the cult TV series Dark Shadows doesn’t do anything to shake off those doldrums, despite the seemingly perfect marriage of director and material.
The original Dark Shadows ran from 1966-1971 on ABC, and pioneered the use of supernatural elements in soap opera. Both Burton and star Johnny Depp have professed to being obsessed with Dark Shadows in their youth, and especially with dashing vampire Barnabas Collins, the series’ most memorable character. But Burton’s adaptation substitutes jokes and special effects for atmosphere and foreboding, and makes the suave Collins into yet another variation on Depp’s predominant weirdo persona (see also: most of his collaborations with Burton, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland).
Locked up for 200 years after spurning the advances of a vengeful witch (Eva Green), Barnabas emerges in 1972 to find his beloved Collins manor in disrepair, the family fisheries business failing, and the witch now the most successful person in the coastal Maine town of Collinsport. Teaming up with the current Collins matriarch (Michelle Pfeiffer), Barnabas is determined to return his family to prominence. His efforts proceed in a haphazard fashion, and the screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith jumps around from one plot point to another, sometimes throwing in developments seemingly at random.
The humor is mostly weak and based around the single joke that Barnabas doesn’t understand the modern world of 1972, and Burton never commits to making a full-on comedy. But Dark Shadows isn’t thrilling or scary, either, and the climax piles on explosions and special effects as a rote exercise in blockbuster bloat. The impressive costumes and sets indicate Burton’s consistent eye for detail, but as in many of his recent efforts, he’s applied his considerable style to very little substance.