Translating television shows to the big screen is part and parcel of popular film-making dating back to the 1950s. So it was no surprise that Dark Shadows, the legendary Gothic horror soap opera that ran from 1966-1971, came back to the big screen in 2012. Unlike the earlier low-budget films made after the show's demise, this one was to be a big budget star vehicle from director Tim Burton with a cast that included Johnny Depp. On the surface, it looked to be a wonder mix of a director and star getting the chance to bring a mutual favorite of theirs to life once more. What it became instead was something of a mess.
To be fair, translating any long running program to the big screen would be a challenge. Never mind if that series ran for something like 1200 episodes like Dark Shadows did while covering everything from vampires to witches, werewolves, and ghosts not to mention usual soap opera tropes like family secrets and twisted relationships. Yet for its opening twenty-odd minutes, Burton and his writers (John August and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter writer Seth Grahame-Smith) seem to do it as they quickly introduce the series most famous character, the vampire Barnabas Collins (played by Depp) and set the stage for the film's main setting: the Maine town of Collinsport in 1972. For these opening minutes, it's a wonderful Gothic film full of atmosphere and menace as Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote) is introduced to the Collins family and their home. It doesn't last very long though.
Sadly, once Depp's Barnabas reappears, the film can't figure out what it's meant to be. Is it an adaptation of the TV series? Is it a Gothic horror film? Is it a parody of the series? Instead of picking any one of those (which, under Burton's direction, would undoubtedly have been interesting), the script tries to be all three. For nearly ninety minutes of its running time, the film moves along from one genre to the other. Worse, it often does so within the same scene which leaves scenes feeling even weirder than one might normally expect within a Tim Burton film. One never knows where to laugh, cringe, or be scared and the result is a film that is immensely unsatisfying to say the least.
It also plays merry havoc with every single performance in the film. Depp's Barnabas has some good moments but the ever shifting nature of the film, especially the attempts to make it comedic, never give him anything really solid enough to play with. The havoc really takes its toll on the usually reliable Eva Green as the villainous witch Angelique who instead gives a performance that, outside of her appearance in the film's opening minutes, becomes overplayed to the point of lacking either menace or humor. The rest of the cast including Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Jackie Earle Haley, and Jonny Lee Miller are all effectively wasted as nobody gets anything solid to do in the film with Carter and Miller in particular playing parody versions of their TV counterparts. Of the entire cast, Bella Heathcote as Victoria Winters fares better but largely because her character becomes the audience's in-road to the Collins' family and by her becoming Depp's love interest, something that allows her to shine ahead of almost everyone else. It's a potentially good cast let down by a poor script.
Yet the film does have some positive attributes. The aforementioned opening minutes are superb with the combination of script, Burton's direction, and production values creating a wonderful atmosphere that the film then throws away. Even in the lackluster parts of the film, the production values are first rate though. The 1972 setting of the film is interesting with 1970s fashions conflicting nicely with the Gothic mansion. Indeed, Collinwood itself is a wonderful piece of pastiche Gothic design though Burton has always had that on his side. There's a number of nice cameos as well including some members of the original Dark Shadows cast that eagle eyed viewers might spot. If one was to rate the film on style instead of substance, it would be pretty good.
Yet for all of its aesthetic attributes, Tim Burton's film of Dark Shadows is a mess. The biggest fault lies in with a script that can't ever quite make up its mind what kind of story it's trying to tell which in turn leaves virtually the entire cast out to dry. The opening minutes hint at a film that could have been good but instead it feels like a trailer for a film that should have been made but wasn't. Bigger isn't always better and this film is a perfect example of how not to bring a TV series to the big screen.