Dark Shadows came out while I was on holiday in the U.K., and by the time I got back, the reviews were so bad that I decided to skip it. Fast forward to today, Oct. 5. Because all of my DVDs were in transit from Netflix, I had nothing else to watch. A quick search on Amazon.com, $3.99 later, and … let me say, I was delighted.
Based on the cult soap opera from the 1960s, Dark Shadows centers on Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), a Liverpool-born aristocrat who moves with his family to Maine, where they start a town, Collinsport, and amass great wealth. Dalliances with a French servant, Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) prove to be his undoing. Furious that Barnabas won’t be hers, Angelique immerses herself in witchcraft, and with her powers wreaks havoc on his life, including “killing” his beloved (Bella Heathcote) and turning Barnabas into a vampire and then interring him for nearly 200 years. When Barnabas finally escapes his earthy home in 1972, he finds himself in a very different world. One thing hasn’t changed, though. Angelique still wants him in the worst way, and she’s prepared to do anything to get him.
Many things should have clued me to the fact that I would love Dark Shadows. Most importantly, it’s helmed by Tim Burton, a director I’ve admired since he made his feature film debut with Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985). Since then, I’ve seen all of his films; most of them in the cinema. (I’ve given 4 out of 5 stars to all of his films except Batman Returns, Planet of the Apes, and Mars Attacks, which earned 2 stars.) He’s one director whose films I will see no matter what they are about. I love his vision. And helping him to realize that vision is one of the most enviable creative teams in Hollywood: Colleen Atwood (costume designer), Danny Elfman (composer), and actors (Depp and Helena Bonham Carter). Another reason? The story came from the minds of John August and Seth Grahame-Smith; Grahame-Smith crafted the screenplay. August wrote the brilliant Go, The Nines, Big Fish, and Corpse Bride; Grahame-Smith is the brains behind Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Furthermore, the film features a gigantic, Gothic, very stupendous mansion with a lot of mysterious passages and ornate carvings and statuary. Old houses are my thing. And did I mention Colleen Atwood? Her costume designs are truly inspiring. She is the most talented person in the industry. Love her. I also adore Elfman, and his score is delightful as are the period tunes selected for the soundtrack. Who doesn’t want to sing along to the Carpenters’ Top of the World? Other notable tunes include Bang a Gong (Get It On) by T-Rex, a furious and awkwardly destructive sex scene choreographed to You’re the First, the Last, My Everything by Barry White, Superfly by Curtis Mayfield, Crocodile Rock by Elton John, and Season of the Witch by Donovan.
Dark Shadows felt very Burton to me – Goth Burton, that is – and that’s a big plus in my book. Parts made me think of Sleepy Hollow; other parts made me think of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. At one point, near the end, I was reminded of Beetlejuice. (Non-Burton films that could be “seen” in Dark Shadows were Death Becomes Her, High Spirits, and Nosferatu.) I mentioned Burton’s “vision.” It translates to quirky, dark yet humorous, imagery. Beautiful blonde, usually doomed, heroines; and pale-faced, black-haired male protagonists. Sometimes playing the former it’s Christina Ricci in Sleepy Hollow, Winona Ryder in Edward Scissorhands, or Jayne Wisener in Sweeney Todd. In Dark Shadows, it’s the Vanessa Paradis look-a-like Bella Heathcote, playing the dual role of Victoria Winters and Josette DuPres. Green, who also sports a blonde wig and chews massive amounts of scenery, looks a lot like former Burton muse and paramour, Lisa Marie. Current love interest and mother to his children, Bonham Carter, sports vibrant orange hair and plays an in-house psychiatrist. She soon takes an interest in Barnabas and his immortality.
Michelle Pfeiffer, who took some years away from Hollywood to raise a family, plays Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, the strong, capable, and very beautiful matriarch. I’m glad that Pfeiffer is “back,” and that she’s reteaming with Burton after all of these years. (She played Catwoman in Batman Returns.) She has long been a fave. Jonny Lee Miller – Sherlock in the new TV series Elementary – plays the loutish playboy Roger Collins. The actor, who I also like a lot, doesn’t really have much to do in the film. Neither do Jackie Earle Haley, playing caretaker Willie Loomis, or Chloe Grace Moretz, playing the sullen teen-ager Carolyn Stoddard. (I’ve recently seen her in a few films – this and Hick – and I’m beginning to think that any talent that was evidenced in her earlier films has faded. She’s horrible in Dark Shadows. All she does is scowl and seem out of place.) But then this really is Depp’s film, and we’re all the better off for it. I’m a long-time Depp fan, and love it when he and Burton work their magic together. Barnabas is an 18th century aristocrat; completely out of his element, and that’s where the comedy derives. He doesn’t understand how a TV works, thinks that McDonald’s has something to do with Mephistopheles (he would be right), and believes that Alice Cooper is a very ugly woman. If you’ve seen the trailers for the film, you’ve seen most of the jokes.
Dark Shadows has its funny moments, but perhaps not as many as the trailers wanted you to believe. And I think that’s why this didn’t do as well at the box office as it should have. Burton fans know what to expect from him: A bit of tongue-in-cheek humor and a lot of quirky darkness. That’s what Dark Shadows delivers. What more could you want? I’m a fan, and I will be buying it on Blu-ray. (PS, look for a cameo by Christopher Lee.)