Many people will probably say that the problem with Dark Shadows is that it can't decide if it's a comedy, or a gothic weirdfest. They are missing the point. It is neither. The "humor" in this movie is an anesthetic. The "weirdness" is a needle. Neither is an end in itself, something you'll only realize as the last of your vital essence is drawn out of you.
Once you're properly drained, you will know first hand what it is to be a vampire. The slowness of eternity, the clawing hunger for something — anything — to warm your dead insides. By then, it will be too late, and your emptied husk will stagger out of the theater. Spoilers ahead...
There are few movies as boring as Dark Shadows. Not even, say, a 10-hour Andy Warhol movie about clams opening. This film offers such a high level of boredom, it approaches a mental discipline, like meditation. Perhaps in the course of watching this film, your mind will expand to the vanishing point of nirvana. Perhaps not.
Honestly, after watching Dark Shadows, I am convinced Tim Burton set out deliberately to create a movie that encapsulates the slowness of immortality, the vampire's ultimate curse. After all, a movie as tiresome as Dark Shadows does not get made by accident. To drain all the entertainment value out of a movie to this degree requires a mixture of genius and fixity of purpose.
In fact, it's hard not to feel as though this movie, itself, is a kind of soul vampire. The amazing mixture of unfunny jokes and pointless gothiness seems, after a while, to be aimed at draining your mental faculties, your attention span, even your capacity for sympathizing with fictional characters. After watching this film, you'll emerge into a grayscale world in which other human beings appear to be pointless meatsacks whose blood could possibly provide the flavor this movie managed to leech out of all your popcorn and candy.
Assuming you still want to know what this movie is "about," here goes. Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith are doing a movie remake of the cult TV soap opera about Barnabas Collins, who's cursed by a witch to become a vampire and finds himself nearly 200 years later in the early 1970s. Here, Collins must cope with his feckless descendants, plus the still-youthful witch who cursed him in the first place. In the movie version, there are a dozen or so subplots plonking on and off, which may be Grahame-Smith's attempt to simulate the story overload of a classic soap opera.
The most useful thing about Dark Shadows is that it reminds us all that irony is a distancing device, not something that pulls you into a story. For irony to work, you need there to be something that we're being distanced from.
Right off the bat, Burton constructs two layers of irony around the story of Barnabas Collins. He's traveled forward in time, so we're viewing his anachronistic mannerisms through the lens of the present day. But because he lands up in 1972, we also view his Nixon-era surroundings through another lens of time-displacement. He's traveling forward in time, the audience is traveling backwards in time, and we meet not quite in the middle. These two lenses serve to make Barnabas, and everything else in the movie, appear incredibly far away and kind of lifeless.
Apparently concerned that you might still find a way into this film, Johnny Depp puts all of his formidable acting powers into creating a performance that explicates the biggest problem with vampires: as a side effect of death, their digestive tracts have seized up, and the result is one hell of a case of constipation. Almost every scene in this film consists of Depp, wearing some of the weirdest Geisha makeup you've ever seen, saying something adorably pompous in a stentorian grumble.
Most of the time, Depp is acting opposite various characters who are somewhat more animated than he is, creating what's supposed to be a hilarious contrast between his uptightness and their hysteria. There's the witch, played by Eva Greene, who tries over and over to seduce him. There's a zany psychiatrist, played by Helena Bonham-Carter, who wants to experiment on Depp. And then there are the Collins family members, whose loucheness is vaguely in contrast to Depp's upright ness.
Camp used to be about challenging and subverting mainstream culture, but Dark Shadows indirectly makes a powerful argument that this is no longer the case. Camp has become familiar, even anodyne, and can only lull audiences into complacency, unless you counterbalance it with something else. Here, the only expectation that's being subverted is the audience's baseline belief that they'll be entertained.
There are two situations in which you should watch Dark Shadows:
1) In the background at a party, with loud music playing. Project this movie onto a bedsheet on a wall, and dance in front of it on a large quantity of Benadryl or wine coolers or whatever substance you use to make your parties bouncy, and people will love it. There are definitely some lovely visuals here and there in this film, and it'll make excellent accompaniment to your collection of "Jamz from Tha Trunk Vol. 2" or whatever.
2) At the very end of a night of getting wasted and watching other, more interesting films. When you're too tired to concentrate but also too wrecked to go to sleep, this movie will be perfect. To borrow a phrase from another movie review I wrote a year or two ago, "This movie is the reason why there's a 4:20 in the morning as well as in the afternoon."
For sure, there are a handful of actually funny moments in the movie, and they're all included in the trailer, embedded at left. (Actually, that's the third way you should consider watching this film. In trailer form.)
The events of Dark Shadows are endlessly repetitive and endlessly endless. For example, Johnny Depp confronts Eva Green about a dozen times, and each of those scenes is identical. (Except that one of those times, they have zany magic sex, which is in the trailer, so that's not really much of a spoiler.) It often feels as though this film is rehashing the same handful of scenes over and over again, until Burton and Grahame-Smith judge we've had enough and the film lurches towards a climax.
Among the many, many subplots in the film, there's a capitalist fable — which seems like it might become interesting, at a few points. When Barnabas became a vampire, the Collins family was rich and powerful, and they ruled Collinsport from their house, Collinwood. But now, the family's all but lost its fortune, thanks to the same witch who cursed Barnabas. So once Barnabas returns, he vows to rebuild the family seafood business, going head to head with the witch's competing seafood business. The notion of the vampire and the witch competing in business, instead of fighting each other with magic or whatever, is pretty fascinating — but then it sort of goes nowhere, after a lot of scenes in boardrooms and factories and stuff.
Oh, and out of this comes one more self-conscious irony, on top of the other ironies: To the extent that the movie has an idea driving it forward, it's that Depp's vampire has more of a sense of self-respect and integrity than all the humans, who have fallen prey to Nixon-era lassitude. Barnabas Collins is a vampire, but he's also keeping the spirit of the family alive. This is a neat idea which also isn't really explored much.
The other thing that this movie seems to want to be about is house porn. The slumbering narrative stirs a bit whenever we're discussing the Collins family house, with its 200 rooms and its awesomely lavish furnishings. The house is probably the most interesting character in the movie, and it clearly is meant to symbolize something about Barnabas and his family — but it's not enough to compensate for the lack of human (or vampire) characters to relate to.
Oh, and there's a supremely bland love story. The Collins children have a new governess, who happens to be the spitting image of the woman Barnabas loved and lost back in the 18th Century. As Victoria Winters, Bella Heathcote seems sort of bewildered by everything going on around her, but at least she brings a cute Christina Ricci-esque wide-eyed spookiness to a few scenes where she's seeing ghosts and seeming bemused. The love story, though, feels both endless and like an afterthought.
That's really the ultimate word about this film's various strands: It's all endless, and yet none of it ever feels like something that Burton and Grahame-Smith were truly committed to, or interested in exploring. All of the endless irony and stylized weirdness keeps working overtime to distance you from the center of the film — but that center is empty and incapable of being filled by the life-essence it sucks out of the audience. After sitting through this film, you, too, will feel as though you've had the experience of living for centuries, and having it mean nothing.