A bad movie that never really stood a chance is one thing. I mean, when you see a bad movie starring someone like Katherine Heigl or directed by Brett Ratner, you just sort of shrug and say, “yeah, well, what else was that gonna be, really?” On the other hand, Dark Shadows, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp’s new reimagining of the cult supernatural soap opera, is the most disappointing kind of bad movie, one that constantly teeters right on the edge of being something truly worthwhile, only to keep shooting itself in the foot at nearly every turn. It’s got a decent concept, with seemingly the right director and definitely a very game cast, but something just seems off almost the entire way through. If you could take the word “frustrating” and distill it into film form, it would be this movie.

Things start off promisingly enough, with voice-over narration from Depp over a beautifully shot intro, giving us the backstory of the Collins family, English immigrants to Maine who made enough of a fortune in the fishing industry that they were able to start up their very own town and build themselves a large estate, known as Collinwood. Unfortunately for Barnabas Collins (Depp), his enjoyment of his family’s success was short-lived – after he spurned the advances of a young chambermaid who just happened to be a witch, she took her revenge by murdering his parents, forcing his true beloved to kill herself, and cursing Barnabas to an undead “life” as a vampire. Not quite satisfied, she then rallied the town to capture Barnabas and bury him “alive,” where she believed he would spend the rest of his miserable eternity. A little harsh, don’t you think?

200 years later, in the year 1972, we see young Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote) on her way via train to Collinwood, answering an ad for a governess for the family. This opening credits sequence (set to “Nights in White Satin” by The Moody Blues) is actually quite captivating in its subtle simplicity, and is the first indication that maybe the movie won’t be the wacky over-the-top romp the trailers have suggested. Victoria arrives to the now dilapidated estate and meets what’s left of the once illustrious Collins – matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her rebellious teenage daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), Elizabeth’s loutish brother Roger (Johnny Lee Miller) and Roger’s young son David (Gulliver McGrath). Also living on the estate are drunken handyman Willie (Jackie Earle Haley) and psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), brought there to try to work with David, who is still grieving the recent drowning death of his mother.

Meanwhile, a nearby construction crew accidentally unleashes Barnabas from his tomb, and after making quick work of the men, Barnabas stumbles through town, clearly confused by its now “modern” appearance, before making his way back to Collinswood. Here, he acquaints himself with his relatives, and vows to restore his family to its past glory. See, just because he’s an unholy bloodsucking murderer doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy. Oh, and he also finds himself smitten with Victoria, who – wouldn’t you know it – happens to bear a way-too-similar-to-be-coincidental resemblance to his former love.

This first half an hour or so is actually pretty darn fantastic, in my opinion. It strikes just the right balance between soap-operatic melodrama, gothic horror-lite, and campy humor. The jokes are spread out enough that they don’t overwhelm, and are actually pretty funny (most, of course, come at the expense of Barnabas’ fish-out-of-water state, but even though it’s an obvious reservoir for humor, Depp plays it with enough conviction that it continues to work). And you can tell the cast is having a ball with their characters and the exaggerated acting style a movie based on a cheesy soap opera demands. This just doesn’t feel like any modern movie I can think of, and you can certainly see what it was about the material and the tone that attracted Depp and Burton. So, for awhile, I was definitely digging it.

Trouble starts to set in, however, with the re-arrival of Eva Green as Angelique, the same witch who cursed Barnabas all those years ago. Apparently she’s also made herself ageless, and has spent the last 200 years running her own rival fishing company, becoming the most powerful, influential member of the community. This is kind of dumb, if you think about it. After getting rid of Barnabas, what appeal did staying in this town really hold for her? You’re telling me a possibly immortal witch with demonic powers couldn’t think of a better use for her time than to become a fishing-business maven in Maine? Talk about low standards.

Don’t get me wrong, as a heterosexual man I never have any problem seeing Green show up in anything, and to be fair she gives one of the most entertaining performances in the film – unlike everyone else’s melodramatic seriousness, Green just goes for a full-on, unhinged, “look how evil I am” campy villain performance. That’s great. More movies could use crazy, evil, busom-exposing Eva Green. I’ve been saying that forever. Or at least I should have been.

The problem is what her character brings to the movie. The Barnabas-Angelique rivalry is the film’s main conflict, but it’s really not that interesting. For one thing, Barnabas’ reaction to seeing Angelique again for the first time is a little underwhelming. I mean I guess he seems angry, but it’s the sort of angry you get when you stub your toe walking into a table that you know damn well is right there, you know what I mean? I can think of at least half a dozen people that I would have a much more vitriolic reaction to if they showed up in front of me right now, and not a single one of them did anything nearly as awful as cursing me to spend eternity as a soulless monster.

But what’s even stranger is that the main thrust of the rivalry focuses on business affairs rather than supernatural hijinks. Barnabas is obsessed with helping his family reclaim their business, fortune and prestige, Angelique wants to stop them. Halfway through the film, I actually had this exact thought: “this is a movie about a witch and a vampire fighting over who will run the more profitable seafood company.” That’s dumb enough, but it doesn’t help that a lot of this stuff is just rushed through and crammed into montages during the middle act.

Even more unforgivably, the Barnabas/Victoria romance is also given the same sort of montage treatment. We see them meet and exchange pleasantries, and then the next time we see them they are sitting together on the beach reading “Love Story.” We will be asked to care a lot about this relationship later, but it’s pretty damn tough to do so when the movie doesn’t even seem interested in showing it actually develop.

Meanwhile, you might be wondering what all those other characters I mentioned before are up to during all this. Maybe when I was listing them, you thought to yourself, “geez, that sounds like an awful lot of characters for an hour and 45 minute movie.” Well, you ain’t wrong, buddy. Thankfully, Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith have come up with a clever solution for this – they just don’t really do much of anything with them. These are all great actors given characters with a lot of potential, but there’s just not enough time here to develop them, and as a result they all just sort of pop in and out for random jokes and stuff, and you never really connect to any of them (Johnny Lee Miller, in particular, is criminally underutilized). And in at least one occasion, the randomness comes so far out of left field that’s its almost physically jarring – a scene where Bonham Carter’s character gives Barnabas a blow-job has to rank as one of the most inexplicable and out-of-place scenes in movie history.

While the middle act is too muddled, it at least still has its moments. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same thing for the film’s third act, an unforgivably lame climax that suddenly devolves the film into a special FX monster mash that is nowhere nearly as fun as they seem to think it is. Sure, we finally get the Barnabas-Angelique throw-down the story has clearly been building to, but the whole sequence is just flat and unexciting and there’s this whole thing where Angelique is starting to break apart like an old porcelain doll and it’s not really explained and I don’t know if I would care if it even was…sigh. Oh, and then it caps off with a sudden reveal regarding Moretz’s character that I dare even the film’s most staunch supporters to defend. I mean, they try to explain it in a single line of dialogue, but seriously, it’s one of the stupidest twists I’ve ever seen in a movie, and I can’t believe Burton and company actually thought it would work the way they present it here.

After the trailer for this film came out, there was a lot of concern from die-hard fans of the show that the movie was going for too much an Austin Powers-esque kind of goofy comedy. Burton and Grahame-Smith have been saying all along that that’s not the case, and it turns out they were telling the truth, though the ironic thing is that this will probably only end up disappointing those who were hoping for a total comedy (the main complaint from most of the group I saw it with seemed to be that it “wasn’t funny enough”). I guess I get why Warner Brothers execs were so baffled by how to market or categorize this movie. One of the nicest things I can say is that it is so goddamn weird, and you sort of have to give a begrudging respect to Burton, Depp and Grahame-Smith for ever thinking this would work with a mainstream audience (shame on Warner Brothers, by the way, for positioning it as a big summer movie – whatever problems I have with it, I’ll at least admit it might have played slightly better in the Fall movie season). But, man, “weird” ain’t always “good.”

I don’t know, this is an exasperating one. I can’t bring myself to say to say “it sucks” or “it’s awful” – not in a world where movies like Jack & Jill or New Year’s Eve exist. There’s a lot of stuff I actually like in Dark Shadows, particularly the performances and the “fish-out-of-water” comedy (it’s funny that a lot of people reacted so negatively to that approach in the trailers, as it really is one of the movie’s best elements and, in fact, the film could have used a lot more of it). Heck, I even sort of respect the odd tonal shifts. So there’s a really good movie bubbling under the surface here, and every once and awhile it manages to burst up and show itself. But those moments are surrounded by too much monotony and way too little character development. I know when this shows up on cable there will be a lot of scenes that I want to watch again, but there will also be a lot of times where I can just get up and make a sandwich or something, and not feel like I’m missing anything. At best, it feels like a Cliff’s Notes version of what probably could have been a really good four-hour miniseries. Wedged into a feature-length running time, there’s just not enough time for all the elements you want to see to get paid off in a satisfactory manner.

It’s really too bad, because for all the jokes and criticism about Burton just making the same movie over and over, this actually is kind of different for him. His typical overblown visual flourishes are kept to a minimum here, but his keen eye for beautiful cinematography is still on display – a lot of the time it really does look an old gothic horror movie from the ‘60s or ‘70s. Between that, Danny Elfman’s pretty good score, a great period soundtrack and the early moments where they get the tone right, it really makes you want to see the real period horror piece that you know Burton has in him. This, unfortunately, isn’t it. A more consistent tone might have helped it with a mainstream audience, I suppose, but personally I think the biggest issue here (besides that shitty finale) is one of bad pacing. It either needed another 15 minutes or so to flesh out more of the supporting characters’  and their subplots, or it needed to excise some of those subplots to work in the time it does have. You know, I’m not usually for movies being taken away from the filmmakers and re-edited against their wishes, but this one has got me reconsidering that stance – I bet a good editor might be able to make something out of this thing. Topher Grace, are you listening?

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