Dark Shadows marks the eighth collaboration between Johnny Depp and Tim Burton — and perhaps also the strangest. The film is an adaptation of the cult classic TV soap opera from the late '60s, a show as famous for its uber-serious gothic tone as for its laughable production values. The first trailer for Burton's adaptation threw fans for a loop when it revealed that the director ditched the soap's melodrama in favor of cheeky comedic camp. (Watch the video below.) Depp plays Barnabas, an 18th century vampire who emerges from his coffin in 1972, turning the film into a kooky fish-out-of-water creature feature. Does the new tone work?
Not at all: It's confusing how Depp and Burton, a duo that seems well-suited to adapt the gothic soap to film, came up with such "tiresome, meandering piffle," says Eric D. Snider at Film.com. It bears almost no resemblance to the original series, and can't decide what kind of film to be: "A parody, a horror comedy, an atmospheric melodrama, or a tedious bucket crap." (It comes closest to the latter.) Jokes about Barnabas actually being from the 1700s, especially, are like bad Three's Company punchlines. Burton is ill-suited for the attempts at broad, less imaginative comedy that he tries here.
"Review: Dark Shadows a muddled mess"
It was a brilliant move: Recent efforts Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were cluttered and largely joyless, says Ty Burr at The Boston Globe. But here, Burton taps into his "morbid playfulness with relish" — allowing him to exhibit "flashes of the whackadoo genius that animated early films such as Beetlejuice." The campiness of it all proves to be the smartest way to both send up and honor the "cheesy doom-mongering" of the original series. The comic mileage earned from Depp's delightful interaction with modern marvels makes the tonal risk worth it alone. Just try to stifle guffaws as he shrieks, "reveal yourself, tiny sorceress!" at '70s singer Karen Carpenter crooning on TV.
It's hit or miss, but rewarding: Dark Shadows "doesn't always work," says Matt Glasby at Total Film, "but there's such a beautiful mess along the way." It's true, the film can't settle on an identity. Many of the sequences juxtaposing Barnabas' 18th century worldview with '70s culture are funny, but the movie's not really a comedy. There are some truly ghoulish scenes, but it's not a proper horror film either. The film is, however, "gloweringly gorgeous," and sumptuously acted. It's "one of the strangest mainstream releases of recent times." It's almost as if "you've slipped into a Burton fever-dream." Befuddling and muddled, yes, but also strangely appealing.