Anyone who’s ever seen the late ’60s/early ’70s gothic TV show Dark Shadows knows that it transcended the trappings of other soap operas by focusing on ghosts, monsters and a vampire named Barnabas Collins. But that doesn’t mean it was devoid of the melodrama and who’s-screwing-whom scandals that are synonymous with soap operas. And with an aesthetic sense similar to that of the British Hammer Films releases, Dark Shadows was hokey and enchanting, which was really a big part of the appeal for the cult following it garnered.
All that being said, Tim Burton seems like the perfect person to resurrect Collins and his cohorts for a new generation in much the same way he revamped Ed Wood, Batman, Sleepy Hollow, Alice in Wonderland and other stories. And with Burton-favorite Johnny Depp filling in the fangs and pasty pallor of Barnabas, all the pieces appeared to be in place. Until we saw the trailers, which heavily implied that the dramatic theatrics had been buried by slapstick goofiness.
Thankfully, that is not the case with Burton and Depp’s new Dark Shadows movie. Though there is some Beetlejuice-like comedy, Burton’s film maintains the gothic feel of the original series with a touch of the whimsy that has made many of his films so magical. And for those who feel like Burton lost his touch after Ed Wood or Mars Attacks!, Dark Shadows could be the kooky comeback many of his fans have been awaiting for more than a decade.
When Depp’s version of Barnabas is accidentally awakened by Collinswood construction workers in 1972, he immediately returns to Collinwood Manor, the mansion his family built upon their arrival in the New World in the 1700s. But a lot has changed in the 200 years that Barnabas has been napping, and he doesn’t quite know what to make of things like the illuminated golden arches of a McDonald’s sign or the paved roads now leading him back home. And upon his return to his now-ailing manor, the dysfunctional descendents don’t quite know what to make of Barnabas, with his outdated fashion sense and ages-old colloquialisms.
Every soap opera needs a big secret or few, and it doesn’t take long for the scheming Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer, who always makes a dramatic entrance from the top of a staircase) to make Barnabas agree to keep his blood-sucking ways from the rest of the family long enough for him to return the Collins name to prominence. It turns out that while he was away, Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) – the heartbroken witch who turned Barnabas into a vampire – has usurped the Collins family’s fishing business and created her own empire in this small Maine town.
Barnabas’ plot to get the family business back on track is interrupted by pill-popping in-house therapist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), who takes full advantage of doctor-patient confidentiality, Elizabeth’s rebellious teenage daughter Carolyn Stoddard (Chloë Grace Moretz) and the arrival of wide-eyed Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), a haunted young woman who bears a striking resemblance to Barnabas’ long-lost lover. Burton injects a lot of groovy ’70s humor, but otherwise sticks to the cheesy supernatural soap opera formula as everyone looks to carry out their own agendas while Barnabas and Angelique one up each other.
Burton always likes to give a nod to his influences, which he does here with a cameo by Hammer legend Christopher Lee and by having Alice Cooper perform at the Collins fundraising ball (to the confusion of Barnabas, who thinks Cooper is the ugliest woman he’s ever seen). And in one of the best uses of a song in a movie, Cooper’s “Ballad Of Dwight Fry” serves to further the story in an appropriately emotional way as the various subplots reach their climax.
Once the final nail is hammered into Dark Shadows‘ proverbial coffin, it has a little bit of everything to please Burton fans and followers of the original series. It’s cheesy, comical, dark, sappy, scandalous and supernatural without every overdoing any particular aspect and without diverting too much from the feel of the old show. It’s also everything people have come to love about Burton’s work, so hopefully the naysayers who were disappointed with his interpretations of Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Sweeney Todd will be open-minded enough to give him another chance.
Dark Shadows. Directed by Tim Burton. Starring Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green, Helena Bonham Carter and Bella Heathcote. Rated PG-13. www.darkshadowsmovie.warnerbros.com.