Review: Dark Shadows

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Count me among the baby boomers who rushed home to my TV set every weekday after school during the late ’60s and early ’70s to tune into the weirdest soap opera ever aired, Dark Shadows. Originally created as yet another soap opera for women, albeit with Gothic overtones, the show quickly became a favorite of young boys, those of us who liked to read Famous Monsters magazine and stay up late to see Zacherle on Chiller Theater. This happened when a supernatural element was added to the show–namely, a 200-year-old vampire named Barnabus Collins.

The show went to to feature almost everything in the horror lexicon: ghosts, witches, werewolves, even alternate dimensions. In the early ’80s it was rerun from the beginning, and it was unwatchable, totally given to the arrival of young Victoria Winters a governess at the palatial and spooky home of Collinwood. If you ever get the DVDs, skip to the episodes in the 200s, when Barnabus arrives.

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, who have now made nine movies together, were both Dark Shadows devotees, and have made an affectionate but unfocused film in tribute to those more innocent days. Burton, perhaps highly aware that it isn’t easy to scare kids any more, has turned his tribute into a comedy that won’t frighten any one except very small children. Barnabus, played by Depp, is a cuddly figure, much like Captain Jack Sparrow, and the fact that he kills several people to drink their blood is easily forgiven. After all, he does apologize for it.

As with the show, the setting is Collinsport, Maine. We get a prologue how young Barnabus was in love with Josette. A servant and vengeful witch, Angelique (Eva Green) curses the Collins family, killing his family, luring Josette to leap to her death off a cliff, and turning Barnabus into a vampire. He’s captured by a mob and chained into a coffin and buried.

Flash forward to 1972, when the Collins family is down on their luck, and Collinwood is largely a ruin. The family is led by the resolute Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), who lives with her shady brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), daughter Caroline (Chloe Grace Moretz), and Miller’s son David (Gulliver McGrath). David’s mother drowned, and he says he speaks to her, and thus an in-house psychiatrist (Helena Bonham Carter) has been living with the family.

Barnabus is freed from his prison by an unsuspecting construction crew, and much of the film becomes a fish out of water tale, or an adaptation of Rip Van Winkle. He is confused by many things, including television, and takes the McDonald’s golden arches for the sign of Mephistopheles (he may be right about that). More vexing is that the seemingly immortal Angelique is still alive, and has a thriving seafood business going that has driven the Collins family out of business. I believe few who went to see this movie expected one about a seafood business rivalry.

Rounding out the plot is Winters (Bella Heathcote), who has a secret of her own, and bears a striking resemblance to Barnabus’ lost love Josette (both are played by Heathcote).  It seems that Victoria has been visited by Josette’s ghost since early childhood.

Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (who wrote the novels Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter) are wise to set the film in 1972, as the cultural markers–Scooby Doo, troll dolls, lava lamps, the Operation board game–are linked to the time period in which the show existed. This makes it Proustian for people of my age, but I wonder how many under-30s look on in bewilderment. They have no idea what this show meant, and how fucking scary it was to the 10-year-old and under set. The opening credits are set to the Moody Blues “Nights in White Satin,” which is okay, I guess, but I wish they would have used the spooky theme music of the TV show, which even now I can remember playing as the opening credits showed waves crashing against the rocky shore in front of Collinwood.

All that being said, Dark Shadows is an amusing diversion. As with all of Burton’s films, it overwhelms with details (one commenter on a movie blog says Burton is really just a great art director). Collinwood, inside and out, is a wonder, and the period costumes are a delight. The performers give their all, particularly Depp, who strives mightily to hold the whole thing together.

But there are too many plot threads. Miller’s character is superfluous, and there’s an eleventh-hour plot twist involving Moretz that comes out of nowhere. There’s also a rather silly sex scene between Depp and Green that has them destroy an office. It gets a laugh, but it’s pretty dumb and unnecessary.

My grade for Dark Shadows: B-.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

2 responses »

  1. I think I more or less agree with this review. Depp and Green had what I thought were very amusing characters, but the rest of the movie around them never really came together. The film goes through a big show of introducing all the family members, and then most of them disappear as soon as Barnabas comes on the scene (this is especially true of Heathcote’s character).

    I think the script just needed a few more rewrites, to bring the ensemble together. To think of something for Michelle Pfeiffer and Jonny Lee Miller to do. To work Moretz’s character into the story better so that her big moment seems less arbitrary. To put less emphasis on the damned fish factories. To think of an ending that actually made sense from a character standpoint. And maybe even to put a little more moral weight on Barnabas’s attacks on the townspeople – the movie flirted a little with the idea that Barnabas actually felt guilty about being a vampire, but ultimately didn’t do much with it.

    By the way, did anyone else feel like Burton modeled Barnabas’s attack on the construction workers after the first appearance of Batman in Nolan’s Batman Begins? The two sequences seemed almost identical to me in the way they were shot and edited, which seemed odd given Burton’s own history with the Batman franchise.

  2. Saw this the other week and I enjoyed it more than the general critical consensus has been.

    Certainly there are flaws but I had a great deal of fun with it. As expected with a Burton film it’s a visual treat and the way he handled scenes like the confrontation between Bonham Carter & Depp were spot-on. Depp is always interesting and entertaining in the central role, managing to cover up other weaknesses when he’s on screen. Green was a fine villain as well.

    I enjoyed Pfeiffer’s performance (someone who has been too rarely in films in past 10 years) in how understated it was, especially in her reaction to when Barnabas reveals his true self.

    While the narrative was messy and choppy, I think in a funny way it worked to the film’s advantage as it made things feel more unpredictable, which suits a film like this.

    Certainly as JS and Brian have pointed out – there were notable flaws in the film. The sex scene was an unnecessary misfire, the stuff about the battling fish companies took up too much time and most significantly, the ending was a letdown of overblown special effects.

    But as this has already been deemed a critical and financial misfire, this will go down as one of my underrated films of the year.

    Rating: B

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