Tim Burton is undeniably one of Hollywood’s visually most distinctive filmmakers. One might like his style or not and there’s a fair reason to argue that he is quite redundant, always relying on his strengths and rarely treading different paths. Nonetheless, his visual touch is one of the most recognizable in Hollywood as much as his preference for movies with plots that perfectly fit his style – usually quirky affairs with a gothic touch and a tendency to lush art direction and costumes. With three $200+ million hits under his belt, he certainly sees no reason to change his approach and has acquired a sizable fanbase over years. About as well-known as his visual style and his taste for certain topics, is also his affinity for collaborating with Johnny Depp. The two have worked together on seven movies in the past and given us classic Tim Burton films like Edward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hollow as well as the much smaller, but equally acclaimed Ed Wood. What could be more fitting for their eighth collaboration than the adaptation of Dark Shadows, a gothic daytime soap from the 1960s that featured vampires, werewolves, witches and other different supernatural beings? Okay, admittedly, only the gothic part of it makes much sense as a daytime soap is not exactly the kind of material you’d expect Tim Burton to be adapting for his movie. However, if you take a closer look at the original soap and its quirky, off-kilter characters you realize that if there ever was an adaptation to be made, Tim Burton’s the logical choice. Moreover, with vampires currently being more en vogue than ever, it was just a matter of time until Tim Burton would sink his teeth into a vampire movie of his own.
As it couldn’t have been expected otherwise, with the announcement of Tim Burton directing Dark Shadows came the announcement of Johnny Depp taking the leading role as the vampire Barnabas Collins. Soon after that, Burton regular, his wife Helena Bonham Carter was cast in the role of the psychotherapist Dr. Julia Hoffman. The Burton fanbase was excited, but many others just groaned at the notion of Burton once again repeating himself and Johnny Depp playing the same character he always plays in Burton films. The truth is that those who have never appreciated Burton’s style much won’t be persuaded to like him by this film either. Burton doesn’t quite reinvent himself or his style with this film. His fans however, should get more than they could have expected as this is the filmmaker’s return to his classic form that made him popular over 20 years ago. All the ingredients are in there and unlike his broader works Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows is thoroughly infused with the charm and mischievousness of Burton’s earlier films.
Dark Shadows revolves around Barnabas Collins, the heir of a fishing empire that his parents set up in Collinsport, Maine in 1752. The youthful Barnabas has an affair with one of the maids, Angelique (Eva Green), but when she reveals her love for him he coldly rejects her. Soon after that he meets Josette (Bella Heathcote) and falls for her. Unfortunately for him, Angelique is a powerful witch and doesn’t take rejection lightly. She makes it her ultimate goal to see the Collins family and, in particular, Barnabas suffer. Ate causing the deaths of his parents and driving Josette to suicide, she exacts the ultimate revenge on Barnabas himself by turning him into a creature of the night – a vampire. As if that wasn’t enough, she makes sure that the village people put him into a coffin, secured by chains and bury him deep in the ground. Almost 200 years later, construction workers accidentally dig up the coffin. After draining 11 workers of their blood, Barnabas makes his way to Collins Manor, once an imposing and glorious building, now neglected and run down. Once he arrives there, he learns that his family has fallen from the status they used to have. Most of the fishermen are now working for a company called Angelbay. The Collins Manor is occupied by a few of his descendants who all seem dysfunctional in one way or another. Elizabeth Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) the family matriarch is trying to keep things together, while wrestling with her rebellious teenage daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz). Carolyn’s brother Roger (Johnny Lee Miller) is more interested in personal wealth than in the family’s business or his son David’s (Gulliver McGrath) well-being who has lost his mother, but claims to be communicating with her spirit. Barnabas’ biggest interest, however, belongs to David’s new governess, the shy Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcoat) who is the mirror image of his passed love Josette. However, Barnabas first goal upon arrival is to restore his family’s wealth and image. First he needs to get used to the wild life in the 1970s and, more importantly, deal with Angelique, the 200-year old witch who is the head of Angelbay and still bent on either winning Banabas’ affections or destroying the Collins for good.
The description of the plot alone sounds like classic Burton material and that is exactly how it plays out. However, this is not your Alice in Wonderland-Burton or Sweeney Todd-Burton. This is Burton harking back to the days of Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice. Most of Burton’s recent films were either flat out fairy tales (Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) or dark surrealistic period horror pieces (Sweeney Todd, Sleepy Hollow). Let’s not mention his work-for-hire job on The Planet of the Apes. In Dark Shadows he blends fantasy and horror with a more current setting (I’d say a movie set in the 1970s still doesn’t count as a period flick). Don’t get me wrong, most of the characters exhibit the same kind of quirks you are used to in Burton’s films with Helena Bonham Carter in particular looking like she has just wandered off the set of any other Burton movie she has been in and the make-up department didn’t even bother changing her look (her character is one of the movie’s most useless too). However, Dark Shadows successfully combines the elements of comedy, horror and a fairy tale all engulfed in Burtons particular vision. Barnabas’ struggle against Angelique with his human family caught in the middle of it is very reminiscent of the ideas we have seen in Beetlejuice. To prevent any disappointment – Dark Shadows is still not on par with Beetlejuice (then again, I consider it to be one of Burton’s finest) as it lacks a figure as distinctive and memorable as Michael Keaton’s titular character.
There are two distinct sides of this film that shouldn’t work as well together, but they do thanks to Burton’s strong directing. The first half of the movie is pretty much a straight-up fish-out-of-water comedy with Depp’s Barnabas shocked by the miracles of the modern world. That includes your usual tired are-there-small-people-inside-this-television-set joke, but also a nice dig at McDonald’s. The movie’ 1970s setting is also well-chosen. It would have been too easy to just transplant the plot in our day and age, but setting it in 1972 allows not just for some jokes at the costs of flower-power hippies, but also for a great soundtrack featuring Iggy Pop, The Carpenters and Alice Cooper among others. The latter actually cameoes in the film as himself, an idea certainly endorsed by Depp as much as by Burton. No Tim Burton film would be complete without a Danny Elfman score and he does contribute some good tunes, though they get overshadowed by the greats of the 1970s rock-n’-roll.
The movie takes a turn for a darker and more Beetlejuice-like side in its second half when the battle between Angelique and Depp escalates, culminating in a big showdown that features a prominent reference to the 1970s horror classic The Exorcist. Overall, Burton’s reverence for the 1970s era is impossible to overlook, but he never overdoes it or pushes any nostalgia down the audience’s throats.
Johnny Depp walks on familiar paths here with his character somewhere between Willy Wonka’s quirks and the tormented nature of Edward Scissorhands, never quite settling for a balance between the two. He’s certainly not bad in the role, but he doesn’t bring anything to it that we haven’t seen him do in a Burton film before. It is, however, admirable that the movie does not let down on the horror part of the plot. Barnabas’ character is an unapologetic vampire. He is not evil per se, but he does kill a bunch of innocent people throughout the film for his need to feed and survive. The movie is sufficiently bloody for a PG-13 affair.
The real star here is Eva Green. Her Angelique steals the show as her scenes with Depp have sizzling chemistry and their banter is just terrific. It is an interesting choice, though, to make a woman who has succeeded in the men-dominated business world the film’s big bad. I assume this might not go over well with some feminist groups. She is certainly the best villain Tim Burton has conjured in a long time. A full-blown femme fatale in stunning dresses, Eva Green enjoys the naughtiness of the character, but also doesn’t shy away from showing the vulnerable side of her character who has never given up on vying for Barnabas’ affections. Their scenes together are the film’s best. The problem here is that they easily overshadow the actual love story plot between Barnabas and Victoria which simply feels insignificant and forced. The movie just never gives Bella Heathcote’s character enough focus.
The rest of the ensemble can only elicit mixed reactions. Michelle Pfeiffer as the strong-willed matriarch has a few good scenes, but is never given enough development. Even less can be said about Johnny Lee Miller. You could take his part out of the movie and you wouldn’t even notice. Jackie Earle Haley has some great scenes as the drinking caretaker of Collins Manor, but is shamefully underused. The less said about Helena Bonham Carter the better. Chloe Moretz is good too as a child of the 1970s, though her character seems somewhat disturbingly oversexualized given her age. The sexual humor plays a bigger role in this film than it usually does in Burton’s films with jokes about masturbation, a literally destructive sex scene between Barnabas and Angelique and a hinted fellatio that Barnabas is receiving from one of the characters.
No much needs to be said about the film’s look. Colleen Atwood as the costume designer could once again come up with some stunning gowns and costumes and the set designs are as interesting as you’d expect from a Burton film, though more adapted to a film’s rather realistic setting. Bruno Delbonnel’s camera works also gives us some images to behold. The visual effects that reach their peak during the very Beetlejuice-esque finale are impeccable too. It is the finale, though that somewhat disappoints. The final confrontation between Angelique and the Collins family is all fireworks and fun, but there is a truly unnecessary “Huh?”-twist thrown in there as well as a full-on deus-ex-machina to resolve the showdown. The resolution of Barnabas’ and Victoria’s love story also feels rushed since the two simply haven’t had much screentime with each other for a believable love story to develop. Despite the muddled finale, Dark Shadows still remains a real blast and Burton’s best effort in over a decade.