(by Dustin Putman
"Dark Shadows" may be something of a mess, its narrative strands scattered and character interactions never quite congealing the way a familial unit should, but at least it's a deliriously macabre, deliciously off-kilter mess. Save for his magnum opus of the new millennium, 2007's marvelously ghastly musical "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," this is director Tim Burton's most inspired effort in years, more genuinely recollective of the originality and entertaining quirkiness of 1988's "Beetlejuice" and 1990's "Edward Scissorhands" rather than more recent plasticized efforts like 2005's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and 2010's "Alice in Wonderland." Based on the 1966-1971 soap opera by Dan Curtis, this long-in-the-works big-screen adaptation is fittingly lavish and tongue-in-cheek without, as the misleading trailers would have a viewer believe, turning the material into a joke. Mixing vampires, werewolves, witches, spooky mansions, pot-smoking hippies, Alice Cooper, and a particular affection for '70s fashion and music, the finished film is offbeat in the best way and should have more than a few audience members scratching their heads. If they didn't already know to expect just as much from Tim Burton and first-time screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (author of "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies"), then they're probably not cinematically hip enough to understand "Dark Shadows" in the first place. Article continues below
In 1760, the Collins clan left Liverpool and settled in Maine, establishing a lucrative seaside fishing business that led to the naming of the town Collinsport. When the son, Barnabas (Johnny Depp), grew into a man, his true love for the fair Josette (Bella Heathcote) and subsequent rebuffing of beautiful sorceress Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) brought about a curse that left Josette dead and Barnabas an unwitting bloodsucker buried alive by the pitchfork-waving community. Over two hundred years later, Barnabas' unearthing in the year 1972 coincides with the arrival of Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote, in a dual role) to Collinwood Manor. An innocent-looking, soft-spoken transplant from New York, Victoria hopes to nab the open position as governess. The family living there—descendants of Barnabas, whose painted portrait hangs prominently on the wall—are a decidedly dysfunctional lot: matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her sullen 15-year-old daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz), along with Elizabeth's widowed brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), his introverted young son David (Gully McGrath), and live-in psychologist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter). An eerily pale-skinned man showing up to their door looking like one of their ancestors raises eyebrows, but before long Barnabas has been welcomed into their home. What he does not yet know is that the equally immortal Angelique still lives herself. When she discovers the man she's been infatuated with for several centuries is above ground and kicking, she vows to either have him once and for all, or destroy him for good.
"Dark Shadows" is a curious motion picture, fascinating for being so unusual as it melds together gothic supernatural horror and Vietnam/Watergate/Woodstock-era satire. The vast majority of the overt comedy has already been glimpsed in a marketing campaign that has seemingly pulled together every "funny" line in the film for a two-and-a-half-minute trailer spot. The rest is more clever and also more serious, beginning with a sweeping, sorrowful prologue that details the history of the Collins family and, especially, Barnabas' tragic fate at the malevolent magic-weaving hands of a spurned Angelique. With Danny Elfman's (2010's "The Wolfman") characteristically catchy, soaring, atmospheric music score put to its first good use against the backdrop of rocky nighttime cliffs, restless shores, and period-set costumes of extravagance, the picture effectively segues to 1972 with an opening titles sequence hauntingly complimented by The Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin." It's a great start to a film that simultaneously never quite becomes what it could and, oddly enough, surpasses most expectations.
As fans of the old television series (over a five-year span, some 1,225 episodes were produced), Tim Burton, producer-star Johnny Depp (2011's "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides"), and writer Seth Grahame-Smith have taken the essence of "Dark Shadows" and transformed it into what the low-budget show might have been able to do with an uptick in talent and $100-million at its disposal. No longer nearly as sudsy but certainly sordid, the film dares to go over-the-top while relaxing with laid-back flower-power vibes. The Collins family members are a disaffected bunch—or they at least put on an air of such—which ultimately places walls between the characters. This is partially the point of who these people are, their dynasty rotting away even as their cannery has continued to provide them with financial wealth, but the disconnect between Elizabeth, Carolyn, Roger and David leaves things emotionally standoffish. Extending to new housekeeper/teacher Victoria, groundskeeper Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley), and the boozy, lonely Dr. Julia Hoffman, there simply aren't enough scenes where the characters associate with each other in order to build relationships. Instead, they often are in their own worlds—again, maybe the point, but not exactly helpful in getting to intimately care about them as people. When they finally do stand up for each other in the third act, it's too little, too late to leave an impression.
And yet, "Dark Shadows" makes countless other positive impressions. As only Tim Burton can swing it, his visual strokes are stunning, every frame like a picture and every set so ornately designed that very few of them feel like studio backlots at all. The location work in actual exteriors brings an evocative reality and impressive scope to the proceedings, while the rest gets away with looking and seeming just as authentic through sheer artistry and craftsmanship. The use of the 1970s as a vast counterpoint to Barnabas' old life in the eighteenth century is smartly handled, the texture of the decade (along with an outstanding soundtrack featuring everyone from Donovan to The Carpenters to Elton John to T. Rex to Iggy Pop to the aforementioned Alice Cooper, appearing in a memorable cameo) giving color and funk to the mise en scene. There is some humor from this fish-out-of-water scenario—a run-in Barnabas has with a van full of peace-loving hippies goes from amusingly uncomfortable to frightful in seconds—but the time period is used as background shading rather than an easy punchline.
In his eighth collaboration with Burton, Johnny Depp is dead-on as the slightly inscrutable Barnabas Collins, a good guy who has uncontrollably become an antagonist (to people outside the Collins family, at least) thanks to his vampiric curse. The dynamic is especially interesting because he's a character to root for who nevertheless leaves a string of bodies in his wake. If he's evil, though, it's out of his true self's control. Angelique, on the other hand, is a psychotic menace, a lethal siren who can't accept that Barnabas does not, and never will, love her. Eva Green (2012's "Perfect Sense") plays a fantastic femme fatale, one who cracks and crumbles like a particularly tough porcelain doll in one of the movie's most noteworthy special effects. While Jonny Lee Miller (2005's "Aeon Flux") and newcomer Gully McGrath barely get a chance to register as father and son Roger and David, relegated too often into the title shadows, Michelle Pfeiffer (2011's "New Year's Eve") and Chloë Grace Moretz (2011's "Hugo") dig into mother and daughter Elizabeth and Carolyn with fetching, self-deprecating twinkles in their eyes. As Dr. Julia Hoffman, Helena Bonham Carter's (2010's "The King's Speech") part is very much a supporting one, but she makes the most of her screen time as a woman yearning for her fading youth and drawn to Barnabas. Though she's more or less a shrink who lives with the Collins', there's ironically no actual sign that she's helping any of them. As for the roles of both the doomed Josette and the evasive Victoria, Bella Heathcote (2011's "In Time") is an eye-catching find, ethereal in her beauty but just unconventional enough that one could see her becoming a go-to performer in Burton's future endeavors. She holds the camera even when she's not speaking.
Handsomely photographed by Bruno Delbonnel (2009's "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince") and dripping with meticulous, Oscar-worthy art direction—the sight of the rustic Victorian manor looming on the hill above Collinsport is reminiscent of Edward Scissorhand's own lonesome hideaway—"Dark Shadows" is a phantasmagoric experience with cookie-cutter Hollywoodization kept to a minimum. Because Tim Burton has earned the trust of studios in recent years, he has been left to his own devices here and has come up with a weird horror-fantasy hybrid of the anything-goes variety. Nothing and no one is safe as the climactic showdown kicks into high gear, Angelique finally barking up a tree called Collins that bites back. The wish remains that the viewer had gotten to know all of them a little better in the scheme of things, but there's always the chance for a return engagement if audiences take to this one. If not, that's okay, too. Hodgepodge or not, the nostalgia-laced "Dark Shadows" is as imaginatively eccentric as it is blithely ghoulish. To see it is to view something that feels different right to its core. How often can that be said in today's studio system?