Review: Dark Shadows (2012)

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In 1760, Joshua and Naomi Collins sailed from Liverpool to Maine with their young son Barnabas (Justin Tracy), and quickly set up a fishing port community called Collinsport. The town prospered, and the Collins family built a large mansion — Collinwood. Barnabas (Johnny Depp) grew into a young lothario, and had an affair with a servant girl, Angelique (Eva Green).  Barnabas soon spurned Angelique for the love of the virtuous Josette (Bella Heathcote), which proved to be his undoing… for Angelique was secretly a witch. She killed Barnabas’ parents, and bewitched Josette into throwing herself off the cliff at Widow’s Hill. In her ultimate act of vengeance, Angelique turned Barnabas into a vampire, simultaneously turning the town against him. Barnabas was then chained inside a coffin and buried “alive” (undead?), doomed to suffer his losses for eternity.

The Cast of "Dark Shadows"

The Cast of "Dark Shadows"

In “present-day” 1972, a woman named Maggie Evans (again, Bella Heathcote) changes her name to Victoria Winters, and begins work as a governess for the current Collins family, which has since fallen from its former glory. Matriarch Elizabeth Collins-Stoddard (Michelle Pfieffer), her angsty teenaged daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), Elizabeth’s lecherous brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), his troubled young son David (Gulliver McGrath), and David’s live-in alcoholic therapist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), along with drunken handyman Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley) and ancient housekeeper Mrs. Johnson (Ray Shirley) are all that remain of the once-mighty Collins family; their canning business is now overshadowed by the mighty Angel Bay cannery, owned by “Angie,” an incognito Angelique, centuries later. Angel Bay construction workers accidentally free Barnabas from his coffin, and he returns to Collinwood, determined to restore the Collins family’s glory, get revenge on the witch who doomed him, then imprisoned him – and maybe find his lost love reborn.

Tim Burton’s big-budget adaptation of Dan Curtis’ legendary horror-cult-classic–soap-opera Dark Shadows is ambitious in every aspect, and mostly succeeds in being both an entertaining re-imagining of the classic soap and the best latter-day work of Burton’s since 2007’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Like Sweeney Todd, Dark Shadows is a pairing of dark and quirky subject matter, Burton’s love of the macabre, and Depp’s uncanny ability to embody unique misfits in a most humanizing way. With a script by Seth Grahame-Smith, the author of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the combination of the material and the creative minds putting the project together seemed like a chance for a great return to form for Tim Burton, who, despite the creative and critical success of Sweeney Todd, had been met with mostly jeers for his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice and Wonderland. Yes, Dark Shadows, with its vampires, Gothic atmosphere, and melancholy weirdness seemed tailor-made for Burton – and then, the theatrical trailer was released. Oh boy.

The fan community, quite frankly, flipped its shit – the negative camp split into two factions: horror fans who were disappointed that the show seemed to be going for a jovial, albeit morbid, tone, and old-school Dark Shadows fans who quickly decried the overwhelmingly campy appearance and the apparent breeziness toward the source material. I, too, was (at first) shocked by the tone of the trailer – definitely tongue-in-cheek – but when reports started to trickle in that the studio had no clue how to market the melodramatic Dark Shadows, whose tone swings from camp to horror to sprawling soap opera dramatics, and that the “zany” aspects of the film were only part of an eclectic whole, I felt relief and hope. After all, Depp was a life-long fan of Dark Shadows and was not only playing Barnabas, a lifetime goal finally realized (stepping into the role originally played by Jonathan Frid, whose Barnabas is forever iconic), but he was producing the film as well. Surely, this team, that still has more hits than misses in my book (Edward Scissorhands, Sweeney Todd, and a little film called Ed Wood, just to name a few) would deliver an excellent product, right?

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The Original "Dark Shadows" cast meets Barnabas

The result, with a few caveats, is a resounding yes. Dark Shadows is a great meld of Burton’s aesthetics and Dan Curtis’ monster-mash-melodrama. While some problems are apparent – narrative editing and plot in general are both problem areas at times – the film mostly succeeds, and Burton et al deliver an excellent reinterpretation of the original source material. Dark Shadows is a treat for the eyes, with some of Burton’s best visuals to date, and also contains one of Danny Elfman’s best musical scores in years. While fans and critics alike are split, praising the film’s visuals and acting or damning the narrative or divergences from the original, I can personally say that this is my favorite Burton film in years, and as an original Dark Shadows fan, I am happy with this resurrection.

First and foremost, Dark Shadows’ success is aided mostly by a great performance from Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins. Transforming himself yet again, Depp dons a pale visage, exaggerated spiked bangs, Nosferatu-like pointed fingers with sharp nails, and Jonathan Frid-esque prosthetic ears to create a Barnabas that recalls Frid’s awkward-yet-stately vampire combined with a kind of dark, quirky charisma that is signature Depp. Depp’s performance is great, gaining laughs with his proper and overly florid language while retaining Barnabas’ gentleman-versus-monster demeanor.  While Barnabas is the center of most of the film’s humor, which does indeed arise from his conveyance from 1760 to 1972, Depp plays the character totally straight, giving Barnabas dignity even during the most silly of the proceedings.

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Elizabeth & Barnabas

As Elizabeth Collins-Stoddard, a woman struggling to maintain the dignity of her fallen-from-grace family, Michelle Pfieffer delivers an excellent performance that, like Depp’s, helps give the film some of that original Dark Shadows form. Following in the steps of the original Elizabeth, the great Joan Bennett, Pfieffer’s Collins matriarch is a woman who protects her family at all costs, and isn’t afraid to pack some heat while still adding class to the proceedings. Eva Green’s diabolical Angelique is an over-the-top sight to behold, threatening to the steal the scenes from Depp and Pfieffer with her bleach-blonde, red-lipped, Lauren Bacall-meets-Bette Davis-meets-Satan’s-harlot looks and a tendency to chew the scenery (in a good way) with great relish. Jackie Earle Haley is comically understated in his role as Willie, and Ray Shirley turns in a surprisingly hilarious performance as the silent Mrs. Johnson. Helena Bonham-Carter’s drunken Dr. Hoffman and Johnny Lee Miller’s sleazy Roger are both excellent performances, but, like the perfectly sensitive portrayal of David by Gulliver McGrath, are hampered by a lack of screen time; all of their characters’ storylines indicate that some of their performances may have been left on the cutting room floor. The acting only becomes questionable in the cases of Bella Heathcote as Victoria and Chloe Grace Moretz as Carolyn. Heathcote’s Maggie/Victoria/Josette is mainly a thankless role in this retelling, the character mostly serving to introduce us to modern-day Collinwood and providing romantic motivation for Barnabas. Victoria has a connection with David, but much of this, too, seems to be represented in scenes that didn’t make the final cut. Moretz’s rebellious Carolyn is a bit too aggressive, and the angst seems a bit too forced; this may be explained by a late-in-the-story plot twist, and although her performance isn’t a horrible one, it seems as if Moretz’s tone doesn’t quite match the element of “fun” in those of Deep, Pfieffer, Green, and Haley. Christopher Lee shows up for a small cameo, and original Dark Shadows alums David Selby, Lara Parker, Kathryn Leigh Scott, and the late, great Jonathan Frid show up for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance at the Collins’ ball – a celebration that also features a performance by shock-rocker Alice Cooper.

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Barnabas (Depp) and Victoria (Heathcote) enjoy "Love Story"

Dark Shadows displays some of the best visuals of Burton’s later years, evoking both the Gothic London of Sweeney Todd and the color palette of Sleepy Hollow’s flashback sequences. The opening sequence of Barnabas’ vampiric origins may be the best piece of film that Burton has directed in years. Tired of the CGI embodied in much of Charlie and Alice, Burton insisted on practical locations and sets, restricting the use of CGI to necessary special effects. The result is stunning – Burton’s Collinwood is one of the most gorgeous set pieces I’ve seen in recent years, nearly becoming a character itself. The costume design by Colleen Atwood is likewise beautiful, with flashes of color standing out sharply against the dark tones of Collinsport. Dark Shadows is definitely a treat for the eyes, and the mostly-CGI special effects never threaten to take the audience out of the action – after all, the original Dark Shadows derived a good deal of its charm from its innovative-yet-low-budget effects, so its only fitting that the computer-aided effects in this adaptation lean more toward the fantastical. The atmosphere is only enriched by the great score by Danny Elfman, who melds some of Robert Cobert’s classic Dark Shadows musical cues with his own Gothic score, adding some synth work that almost recalls some of the tone created by the likes of Goblin and John Carpenter, but using bombastic, epic moments to add to the fantasy/horror feel.

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Barnabas at Collinwood

The problems with Dark Shadows seem to be mostly in the screenwriting by Seth Grahame-Smith, whose screenplay presents a lot of ideas, but ultimately doesn’t go very far. The original Dark Shadows lasted for 1,255 episodes, so the task of highlighting some of the original plotlines is a daunting one indeed. Much like his zombie spin on Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, Grahame-Smith relies a bit too heavily on the fish-out-of-water adjustment Barnabas makes after he awakens in the 70’s. While the comic tones don’t fully overpower the film’s morbid dealings, there is a an over-reliance on the use of 70’s pop songs during the second act, but it’s balanced out by Elfman’s evocative score. The comic elements of the show are balanced with the horror of the vampire plot, and there are a few adult situations that arise from Barnabas’ female loves. Although most of the zany comic elements are only present for 1/3 of the film, Grahame-Smith’s screenplay is heavy on the characters and their situations, but light on narrative and direction. The plot thins out after Barnabas is resurrected, and admittedly, Barnabas engaging in a free-trade conflict with Angelique starts to head into the “exciting” arena of Star Wars’ intergalactic senate meetings. The narrative is also hindered by some under-developed subplots, such as the romance between Barnabas and Victoria, but this seems to be a result of scenes that were chopped to shorten the film’s nearly two-hour running time. Both Burton and Grahame-Smith have hinted that some sort of a restored director’s cut may be in the works for the eventual DVD/BluRay release, and, for this writer at least, that would be a very welcome thing.

Dark Shadows is frustrating only in this aspect, and admittedly, it is a problem that prevents a good Burton film from becoming a great Burton film. Frankly, after a strong opening, and an enjoyable but nearly too-cheery second act, the film starts to weaken, frantically trying to resolve its plot while introducing a few twists that, while surprising, don’t always work. I won’t spoil anything, but the final climax becomes a monster mash that is a bit more muddled than fully effective. It may sound like I’m being harsh, but it’s more of a realistic assessment of the aspects that keep the film from being a total home run.

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The curse of the vampire.

Still, despite some of the problems in plot (which is not a new thing for Burton), Dark Shadows has a great deal to offer, and is definitely undeserving of the negative criticism it is receiving. I take issue with this, and this is my attempt to make sense of this reaction. I believe this problem is derived from false and/or unrealistic expectations, and a tendency for fans of the original series to be unforgiving to the film’s deviations from the original show. To the fans that expected a full-out horror show, I am sorry to say that your expectations were unfounded. The original Dark Shadows, despite being steeped in the supernatural with its vampires, witches, and ghosts, was very much a soap opera. The mysteries and thrills of the series were spread out over a vast amount of episodes, accompanied by the romance and stilted dialogue of daytime soaps. Fans of the original seem upset at the deviances from the original, and while this is understandable, I also find it to be a bit unrealistic. As a big-budget adaptation, directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp, attempting to appeal to a wide variety of audiences (original fans, horror fans, Burton fans, Depp fans), would have been a hard sell to the studios as a straightforward port of the original show, and would have necessitated production on a smaller scale, with a smaller budget and a less-famous cast. Fans who dislike Burton’s film may have preferred a smaller, but more faithful, remake, but I believe that this film builds on the original and becomes its own enjoyable creature. While the film may not appeal to everyone, I take issue with anyone who claims that this film ranks among Burton’s worst films. Dark Shadows is immensely more enjoyable than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Big Fish, Alice in Wonderland, and Planet of the Apes. Dismayed fans may engage in this hyperbole, but in my opinion, Burton is, for the most part, back in top form with Dark Shadows.

Dark Shadows, even with its flaws in narrative, is an enormously enjoyable trip into the world of Collinwood and the cursed world of Barnabas Collins. Burton has created a film in which Depp, Pfieffer, and the rest of the cast create some memorable performances in a world fashioned by an amazing creative team. While the script may be light on narrative, the characters and wit shine through – Depp’s delivery of the comic dialogue is hilariously droll, and in my opinion, pitch-perfect. The film marks a return-to-form for Burton, who is back in his element, combining his unique visuals with a horrific but humorous story. Dark Shadows is deserving of praise, and the best of it is this: Barnabas, and Burton, are back… and there is still life in both of these creatures of the night.

Rating: 4/5 ★★★★☆ 

DarkShadowsMondo

"Dark Shadows" poster by Mondo Tees

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About Nathan_E

Nathan Erdel is a screenwriter. He wrote Headless and some other stuff. He likes beer, metal, pizza, and horror. He has three cats and one wife.

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