Dark Shadows is a really weird movie to review. Actually, it is just a really weird movie, period, and for the most part I ended up liking it for that very reason. About 75% of the movie plays more or less like a fairly amusing spoof of the original 1960´s daytime soap opera of the same name, before entering its third act and demanding to be taken seriously as a movie. It is one of the weirdest and most abrupt tonal shifts in a modern mainstream Summer tentpole movie I can remember, and while this is kind of a fatal flaw storytelling wise, it is really hard to hate on a movie that is so strangely endearing up until that point.
For those of you unaware, Dark Shadows was originally a daytime television series which ran from 1966-1971. Initially a gothic soap opera without any supernatural elements, the show was tanking in the ratings, so the producers decided to bring in a vampire character to spice the show up. Actor Jonathan Frid joined the show in 1967 as Barnabas Collins, a 200 year old vampire who oversaw his descendants in the wealthy Collins family. The addition of Barnabas turned the ratings of the show around, and Dark Shadows became a pop culture phenomenon. The show was pretty much a convoluted, campy mess, with actors flubbing lines and the cheap sets sometimes coming apart on live television (forever preserved in syndication) but none of these things stopped the show from being a genuine phenomenon.
The show covered everything; alongside vampires there were witches, werewolves, zombies, time travel and parallel realities. No supernatural stone was left unturned in the show’s five year life span. And while storylines barely made any sense sometimes, that didn’t stop the show from developing a fiercely devoted following of teenagers and kids who ran home from school in time to catch the show. It should be noted that camptastic soap or not, Dark Shadows is the first significant sympathetic portrayal of a vampire in popular culture. Without Barnabas, we wouldn’t have had Anne Rice’s Lestat, Joss Whedon’s Angel, or any of the current crop of lovable sexy vampires that permeate our culture at the moment. In fact, the CW’s Vampire Diaries is pretty much a direct descendant of Dark Shadows, equally convoluted in terms of storylines, and equally lacking a sense of humor about itself.
One of the kids who grew up obsessed with the series was Johnny Depp, who idolized and imitated Jonathan Frid’s Barnabas as a young child. He eventually secured the rights to the series and got his BFF Tim Burton (who was also a big fan growing up) to direct this big screen remake. What results is a movie that is kind of a hot mess, but one that is almost consistently enjoyable as well. The best way I can describe it is this: This is the kind of movie you know isn’t great (or even really good in any objective sense) but every time it shows up on tv in the future, you likely won’t change the channel and keep watching anyway.
The movie begins with a flashback that shows how Barnabas Collins arrived in America as a young boy from 18th century England, and with his family establishes the town of Colinsport Maine. After spurning the affections of family servant Angelique (a delightfully over the top Eva Green) who it turns out is a powerful witch, she kills Barnabas’ one true love Josette by hypnotizing her to throw herself off a cliff to the ocean below, and in turn curses Barnabas and makes him a vampire. As if being a vampire wasn’t bad enough, she chains him in a coffin and buries him for two centuries. This whole five minute prologue sequence reminds me a lot of one of my favorite guilty pleasure movies, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Francis Ford Coppola’s lavish and overwrought 1992 adaptation. Both movies have the lead character lose their beloved who throws herself off a high precipice to her doom in the prologue, and then then both characters become vampires in unconventional ways. In both movies, the vampire’s long lost loves turn up hundreds of years later, reincarnated and ready to be wooed all over again.
But that’s pretty much where the similarities to Coppola’s Dracula end. As soon as that whole opening sequence is done, the movie just desends into pure camp territory, and that’s actually a good thing. Johnny Depp’s Barnabas wakes up in 1972, and the movie has a ton of fun playing up the whole Rip Van Winkle aspect. Some gags land better than others, but Depp is clearly having a ball in every scene he’s in, and you can tell this whole project is a labor of love for him. He’s having such a blast playing Barnabas it is hard not to have a blast along with him. In fact, most of the cast is having a blast camping it up here too, especially the still gorgeous Michelle Pfeiffer as Collins matriarch Elizabeth Collins, and Chloe Moretz (former Hit Girl from Kick-Ass and future Carrie White) as her surly 15 year old daughter Carolyn. Rounding out the cast are Jackie Earle Haley as Willie Loomis, the Collins’ drunkard of a groundskeeper (think Renfield from Dracula) Johnny Lee Miller as Elizabeth’s loser brother Roger, Gulliver McGrath as Roger’s son David, and the obligitory (yet awesome) Helena Bonham Carter as boozy chainsmoking live in shrink Dr. Julia Hoffman.
Arriving just prior to Barnabas’ awakening is Bella Heathcoate as young David Collin’s new nanny Victoria Winters. Heathcoate is problem number one in this movie; unlike seemingly everyone else in the movie, Bella Heathcoate has no idea what movie she’s in, and plays everything straight. Whenever she is onscreen the fun grinds to a halt, and it is no wonder her scenes are so limited. Unfortunately, because her character ends up with so little screen time, her love affair with Barnabas feels forced and uninspired.
There isn’t much of a plot to Dark Shadows, but what passes for one is Barnabas trying to get the family business prosperous again, and in the meantime destroy his old rival Angelique’s competing business, and her with it. (really, that’s it, that’s the whole plot) But most of the running time is really devoted to Barnabas’ antics adjusting to life in the 70’s. All of these moments (of which there are plenty) makes me wonder just who the target demographic for this movie is; certainly Johnny Depp’s younger Jack Sparrow/Alice in Wonderland fans aren’t going to get much of the jokes that rely on nostalgia on how ridiculous the 70’s were, much less get that most of the movie is a spoof on a show they’ve never even heard of, much less seen. Having seen the movie, it is kind of shocking that Warner Brothers gave this thing the greenlight. But I guess that is the power of Burton and Depp; none can resist them.
At nearly two hours, I’d say for over 90 minutes of that running time the tone of the movie is pretty delighfully campy and frivolous, but it is after that where the problems come in. Once we get to the last act, the movie suddenly wants the audience to start taking this story very seriously, where as before there weren’t really any stakes; the whole thing played like a lark. Without giving too much away, the kitchen sink is thrown in, and the ending almost derails the whole movie for me. But there is just enough fun to be had here to at least recommend this as a matinee, especially if you’re a Burton fan who feels slighted by his more recent output.
There’s a lot of hate these days for Tim Burton, especially online, and it is easy to understand why. In the last decade, Burton hasn’t made a single movie based on an original idea, instead just “re-imagining” old properties. Even his two most well regarded project of the past dozen or so years (Big Fish and Sweeney Todd) are based on pre-existing material. Dark Shadows isn’t going to change anyone’s mind about Burton, but at least this time both Burton and Depp seem to be having more fun together than in Alice in Wonderland, or even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Dark Shadows is the eighth big screen pairing of Burton and Depp, and even though I enjoyed a lot of it, I still think these two need a long break from each other. (say, maybe a decade) But if we all get what we wish for, and Dark Shadows turns out to be their swan song as a team, there could be worse ways to go out than this.