Place this one squarely in the category of “it was going to happen to me sooner or later.” I had no intention of even writing this review after I finally did watch it. As it was, I went five years without seeing it. So why now? There’s no real answer to that other than “because it’s there.” Even Captain Kirk admits that just isn’t reason enough sometimes. There are certain movies where enough time has to pass before I can watch them objectively, and surprisingly enough I was able to do that with this one. It’s also somewhat easier to do when the source material is a daytime soap opera.
As it turns out, that’s not the Dark Shadows I know. I’ve seen only a handful of the original episodes, which are enough to drive anyone to madness if you watch them in rapid succession, but are enough goofy fun that it’s easy to see why the show persisted for as long as it did. Watching them once a day is the right mix. So when it comes to the original series, I have a handle on the primary story, and I understand the fan devotion to the late Jonathan Frid, TV’s original Barnabas Collins. For me, the short-lived revival series in 1990 with Ben Cross in the role is what made me sit up and take notice. And having ended on a cliffhanger, it captured my imagination. No matter which version you like better, it’s a foregone conclusion that this film wasn’t going to live up, no matter how well they did with it.
This brings us back to that original question: why’d I bother? Curiosity, a respect for the director, and a love of the cast, all of which I need to address as part of this review. Curiosity, obviously, because I wanted to know how close they got to the original story. Johnny Depp claims himself to be a big fan of the original, secured the rights to make it, and pretty much dragged Tim Burton to his director’s chair.
Respect for the director… this comes with a caveat. I have a profound respect for Tim Burton. I get the way his mind thinks. I have a grasp on his creative impulses. But even then, he’s capable of surprising me. The thing is, I love the films he does based on original material. Whenever he gets a pre-existing franchise, I always question if he’s truly the right man for the job. It’s not that I don’t respect his vision, but it’s more a case of I don’t think his vision is appropriate to much of the source material he touches. I can count on one hand the number of times where that worked out. Batman and Batman Returns, the latter of which I have an insane love for, were just wrong. Fun movies, but they’re not Batman. Mars Attacks! was about perfect to the source material. Sleepy Hollow is the one I point to where even though he changed everything, he actually made it better. I don’t know how he pulled it off, but this is one of those classic “exception that proves the rule” situations. To my mind, that’s a quintessential Burton masterpiece. Slide this alongside his originals like The Nightmare Before Christmas, Beetlejuice, or Ed Wood, and you understand what I look for in his work. And even then, aside from his unwatchable Alice in Wonderland films, I pretty much enjoy his artistic direction all around.
Love of the cast… this is the last point that pulled me in. It’s not Johnny Depp that reels me in. Never has been. He’s one of those guys who I think would be interesting to know, and when he nails a role, he really nails it. There’s something fundamentally Burton-esque about him that works for these sorts of things. But after a while, some of his roles get sort of same-y, especially given his goofy aloofness and whiteface makeup. I get it: he’s the guy that made this movie happen. He’s still not right for the role of Barnabas Collins no matter how you slice and dice it. I don’t feel a separation from the world and a simmering anger there. The same goes for Helena Bonham Carter. I’ve seen her do some good stuff over the years, but like Depp, I sort of which she’d change the record once in a while. The cast members that got my attention were Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green, Jackie Earle Haley, Chloë Grace Moretz, and (in a brief cameo appearance) Christopher Lee. Each of these is a consummate actor whom I’ve come to respect in their own ways, and I’m more than willing to at least check out their work even if the movie around them is suspect… like this one.
Enough preamble. Let’s just do this.
In the mid-18th century, the Collins family sets sail from Liverpool to America to start a new life, away from the “family curse,” investing in shipping and seafood. The town of Collinsport, Maine, arises in the wake of their success. Rich and powerful, Barnabas Collins has seemingly a perfect life until he breaks the heart of one of his servants, Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), an exceptionally powerful witch. She kills Collins’ parents, hypnotizes Collins’ lover Josette into suicide by throwing herself over the nearby cliff, and then when he tries to follow, she curses him to an immortal life as a vampire. And then just for grins, she turns the town against him, locking him in a coffin and having him buried alive. So far, so good. This is an excellent introduction, quite different from the train wreck I expected.
Collins is dug up in 1972, and this is where the goofiness ensues. The biggest problem: Dark Shadows isn’t a comedy, nor should it ever have comedic elements. Neither Burton nor Depp can resist themselves, and while I have no doubt they had fun, it’s just… squirm-worthy in places. Every uncomfortable issue I have with this film is a direct result of the comedy that, had it been nearly any other story, might have worked so much better. When they played it straight, the film works so much better. That brings us to the second problem, because the film kept bouncing back and forth between these poles, so it had a bit of an identity problem.
Back to the plot. Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), who is the spitting image / possible reincarnation of Barnabas’ Josette, comes to Collinwood Manor as a governess for young David Collins, whose mother drowned. David doesn’t adjust well, claiming he sees his mother’s ghost. When Barnabas returns, he strikes a deal with the manor’s matriarch, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer).
Elizabeth and Barnabas agree to keep his vampirism and the hidden family fortune a secret, and they will return the Collins family and their businesses to their former glory. Of course, the rival for this business is none other than Angelique, who has survived the ages as an immortal, doing everything imaginable to bring the Collins name just short of total destruction. If the family curse can be named, it bears her name. Once they become aware of each other, Angelique issues her ultimatum: join her or suffer some more.
The comedic elements of this film are high camp, accented by Barnabas’ fish-out-of-water story and a pop/folk 1972 greatest hits soundtrack that not only makes the movie even more uncomfortable for feeling out of place, but pretty much hides an otherwise interesting Danny Elfman score. When did covering up a Danny Elfman score become an acceptable transgression? Answer: never. What the freak were you thinking, Burton?
The sexual tension between Depp and Green… I’m pretty sure that’s all in Green’s acting prowess. Admittedly, that needed to be one-sided for this story to work, but the script calls for it to be coming from both of them, so clearly something’s not working. Depp spends much of his screen time aping every bad knockoff of Bela Lugosi you’ve ever seen. Meanwhile, Green can read the phone book and make it sizzle while somehow delivering even the worst lines with an interesting performance, so you can see why it still comes across as an awkward mess when the two are on screen together. She’s delivering on all points while Depp is being handed scenery to be chewed… and passing it off to her to chew it for him.
Michelle Pfeiffer is perfectly cast and wonderful as always. Jackie Earle Haley was likewise perfectly cast as groundskeeper Willie Loomis. I’m pretty sure this is the role where Chloë Grace Moretz wisely decided she needed to break past her Hit Girl stereotyping, which she has since done very well. She delivered what she was given to work with here, but you could tell she needed better. Likewise, Dr. Julia Hoffman isn’t the right role Helena Bonham Carter, even though she clearly had fun with the film as much as Depp and Green did. And it’s always a pleasure to see Christopher Lee, even if it’s only a single scene.
Probably the most surreal bit of casting comes with the “ball” that they throw at Collinwood, which becomes a party / concert with none other than Alice Cooper back in the makeup and still proving himself worthy of rock legend status. This is one of those Burton surprises I mentioned. I wouldn’t have called this cameo at all.
The movie’s finale feels more like an ode to the film Death Becomes Her. It also falls a bit flat partly because of that comparison and partly because I’m used to seeing the Barnabas / Angelique plot unresolved. Such is the nature of Dark Shadows. Such is the secret to its staying power. Even so, it wasn’t a wholly unsatisfying showdown. For this version of it, it absolutely needed to resolve itself, and I most definitely applaud the subtle touch of Angelique’s immortality cracking apart like a porcelain doll. Something about that just worked, both visually and with the sound effects. That sort of thing tells me Tim Burton is still in there somewhere.
Weirdly though, the real star of this movie for me is the Collinwood set. It’s gorgeous. It’s intricate. It instantly captures my imagination as someplace I’d love to visit. Who am I kidding? I could live there.
The inside of the place is one part Wayne Manor and one part Addams Family mansion without really going over the top in either of those directions. It just feels right. The detail in the craftsmanship is phenomenal.
On the whole, this is a film that, while being a bit of a train wreck, does manage to find Dark Shadows in it here and there, mostly when Depp isn’t on screen. His Barnabas just absolutely sabotages it because it’s the exact wrong take on the character. Part of me wonders what might have happened if the comedic elements weren’t there. The superb cast around him isn’t enough to save it, but they’re fun to watch anyway. Mostly it’s a case of potential wasted on camp. And yet, not nearly as bad I feared it would be, so maybe that accounts for something?