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-.