There’s no denying that Dark Shadows is a bit of an oddity, flip-flopping between comedy and gothic melodrama. These tonal swings are not always convincing, but it doesn’t detract from the fact that the film is a good chunk of nonsense fun, clearly made with love and style. Just as importantly, the film is one of the more gratifying of the now eight collaborations between director Tim Burton and leading man Johnny Depp – eschewing the irritating character quirkiness for quirkiness’ sake that crept into Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland.
Based on the supernatural soap opera that attracted a cult following during the mid 60s to early 70s, Dark Shadows 2012 opens with a brief prologue that sets the scene: Barnabas Collins and his family set sail from England to the New World in the 1700s and settle in gloomy Maine, where they establish a fishing empire. But good fortune in business is paired with personal tragedy once Barnabas spurns a serving girl, Angelique (Eva Green). Angelique is a witch, it turns out, and immediately Barnabas endures the simultaneous trauma of losing his true love and being transformed into a vampire.
Shackled in a coffin and buried by the townsfolk, Barnabas is eventually freed two centuries later, in 1972. During this time, the Collins family has devolved into a handful of sullen, shunned misfits (Michelle Pfeiffer, Jonny Lee Miller, Chloe Moretz, Gulliver McGrath), holed up in their dusty, increasingly dilapidated mansion with their equally dysfunctional, alcoholic servants (Jackie Earle Haley, Helena Bonham Carter). With the mantra “Blood is thicker than water”, Barnabas sets out to reverse his family’s fortunes. Meanwhile, Angelique is still around, as the worst kind of vindictive, grudge-holding ex. And wide-eyed, secretive Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote) is drawn to Collinsport to be a governess for the youngest Collins, David, who persists in talking to his dead mother.
Burton has never been a slouch in terms of world creation and here, back on the darker turf that helped establish his reputation, he excels. Collinwood Manor is especially well realised, inside and out. You get a strong sense of Burton’s affection for the material, and more especially the era – as the flower power hippie movement gave way to sneering cynicism, conservative high collars and Farrah Fawcett hair. Surprisingly, Burton’s distinctive aesthetic doesn’t overpower the material, and Dark Shadows credibly replicates the look of the early 1970s. Also, the film’s fantastic period soundtrack doesn’t hurt.
In terms of performances in Dark Shadows, for the most part there’s a deliberate stiffness in keeping with the film’s soap opera origins. Depp, Pfeiffer and Heathcote seem to buy into this affected approach most consistently, breaking every now and then through the rigidity to great effect with some choice one-liners.
Speaking of Depp, Dark Shadows has apparently been a pet project of the actor’s for decades, and he’s in the producer’s seat here as well. This may help to explain why Barnabas Collins is one of his best ever characters under the direction of Tim Burton. The trailers have created the misleading impression that Barnabas is simply a kooky fish out of water – and yes, he certainly has plenty of these moments – but this Byron-esque hero is still a bloodthirsty vampire beneath the 18th Century manners. What is perhaps most surprising about Dark Shadows is that Burton has managed to squeeze in a couple of genuinely unnerving moments.
As already mentioned, Dark Shadows doesn’t always get its shift between genres right. In the film’s final third, Barnabas suddenly becomes sexual catnip for the forward women of the 1970s, and the film starts losing its grip on proceedings. And unfortunately Eva Green sits at the centre of the chaos. It’s no fault of the actress, who, in full-blown femme fatale mode, is far more loose and fun here than in, say, Camelot, which demanded inflexible, haughty villainy. However, Green’s scarlet-lipped Angelique seems present in Dark Shadows simply to introduce all-too-predictable conflict and drive the plot… when a focus on the tender courtship between Barnabas and the sweet Victoria would have made for a better narrative. In fact Dark Shadows would probably have been a very different film if it was centred on Heathcote’s character, and scrounged up some real substance instead of sticking to the slick, superficial and obvious.
Anyway, it’s a genuine pity that everything becomes such a mess during Dark Shadows’ climax. This is not an uncommon problem with Burton films actually (remember Beetlejuice?), as they stumble over their own feet racing for resolution after a lengthy set-up. So, suddenly there are betrayals, explosions and angry townsfolk, as well as a supernaturally powered battle, peppered with “WTF?” revelations and nifty special effects.
There are also several plot threads left barely touched by the time the credits roll. Certain characters never receive much of a back-story or explanation of their motives. But then again, this was always going to be an issue given the movie’s large cast and nature of its source material: a soap opera with five years’ of daily developed narratives.
I’m unable to comment on the film’s fidelity to the TV series, but for me, ultimately, the Dark Shadows film works best as a black comedy – a quirky tale of family dysfunction with a dash of horror for extra flavour. It gets completely overblown by the end, but that doesn’t detract from the initial enjoyment it provides. Fun, but very flawed.