A strikingly designed, mordantly funny take on the 1960s cult daytime soap, Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows is pretty much a blast until an underwhelming monster mash climax. But while the finale doesn’t really work, enough else does to make this worth catching: there’s (expectedly) terrific art design, some laugh-out-loud fish-out-of-water comedy mixed with gothic horror, and a choice role for Johnny Depp as transplanted vampire Barnabas Collins.
The film is based on the soap opera of the same name, which was created by TV producer-director Dan Curtis (The Night Stalker) and starred Jonathan Frid in the role of vampire Barnabas Collins.
While the show had a relatively short six-year run from 1966-71, it broke new ground for the daytime TV format, and its popularity has grown enough in the past forty years to warrant a blockbuster Hollywood remake. The original Dark Shadows is a significant cult item; the entire series can be had on DVD (131 discs) later this summer (it retails for $699 – which is a bargain compared to the individual releases.)
Burton’s reimagining of the series, disappointingly, doesn’t really take full advantage of its soap opera origins, and instead plays to the director’s strengths and weaknesses as a decidedly minor (but entirely fun) addition to his oeuvre. The biggest culprit here is the one-dimensional screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith; he was also the author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which gives you the right idea of what to expect here.
Dark Shadows opens with an 18th-century prologue that sets up the general story: wealthy playboy Barnabas Collins (Depp), whose family emigrated from England to create the fishery town of Collinsport, Maine, breaks the heart of the wrong girl, witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green). Angelique promptly kills off his parents and his lover, turns him into a vampire, and then buries him inside a casket for all eternity.
Or about 200 years, which is when his casket is unearthed at a construction site in 1972. Two centuries behind the times, he returns to Collinwood Manor to find the mansion in ruins and his descendants – matriarch Elizabeth Collins (Michelle Pfeiffer), daughter Carolyn (Chloë Moretz), brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), and Roger’s son David (Gulliver McGrath) – struggling to get by. Also in the manor: David’s therapist Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), new governess Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), and groundskeeper Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley).
Her revenge on Barnabas unsated, the immortal Angelique has, apparently, continually kept the Collins family down over the past two centuries. But now that Barnabas has been resurrected, he vows to restore the family to its prior glory.
For its first two-thirds, Dark Shadows is ribald fun: the film looks terrific, even if the reliance on CGI (and computer-modified images) is too heavy for my tastes, with picture-perfect landscapes and interiors and excellent makeup. Story seems to be an afterthought, but that’s OK – there’s enough atmosphere and general weirdness on display to maintain our interest. And while this is all too goofy to work as a horror film, the gags hit more often than they miss.
Unfortunately, all the good will Dark Shadows has built up starts to fall apart by the fiery climax, which pits an undead vampire against an immortal witch. Only problem: we have little idea of these characters’ strengths and weaknesses, of what their powers entail, or what is needed for one to defeat the other.
This is not a problem isolated to this movie – it’s a real issue in the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter films, and other such CGI spectacles – but it reduces what should be an involving climactic battle into an assaultive visual experience where the audience has little idea of what, exactly, is going on.
The thing is, we know what hurts a vampire: garlic, sunlight, holy water, crucifixes, or a stake through the heart. But instead of employing any of these devices as a threat that we can relate to, Dark Shadows just throws Barnabas Collins around the screen like a ragdoll, to little effect. Is he hurt? Can he die? We don’t know.
And we don’t have a clue about Eva Green’s witch character: nothing seems to stop her or even slow her down; she just gets battered and battered while we wonder if any of the violence is having an impact.
Compare this over-the-top climax to the one in Burton’s Beetlejuice. It’s so silly, and so simple: in that film, the characters just need to say ‘Beetlejuice’ three times to defeat the villain. But it works! We know what has to be done, and how close the characters are to doing it. This builds tension, and naturally involves us in the film. Here, we have two immortal characters throwing superpowers at each other for ten minutes, and no way to relate to any of it. Bah!
I complain, but I’ve come to expect this in nearly every blockbuster in the past ten years. Dark Shadows is merely par for the course.
Also of note here: an excellent soundtrack, which features original music from frequent Burton collaborator Danny Elfman and period tunes from Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, Donovan (Season of the Witch, of course), T. Rex, The Carpenters (Top of the World), and The Moody Blues (Knights in White Satin, which sets the stage during the memorable opening credits sequence). Best of all: Depp’s stone-faced rendition of Steve Miller Band’s The Joker.
Cooper also makes a cameo appearance, playing himself forty years younger. Also on hand: horror icon Christopher Lee, and four members of the original cast: Jonathan Frid, Lara Parker, David Selby and Kathryn Leigh Scott. Frid passed away just last month; this was his final film appearance.
Dark Shadows is clearly positioned as the first film in a franchise, haphazardly introducing storylines and curiosities that have yet to be fully explored. But one wonders if future films will ever materialize; this is probably a little too strange for mainstream tastes.
Nor is it, really, easily disposable summer entertainment. In some years time, Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows might find itself joining the original TV show as a modest cult item.