Having never watched the original 1960s daily soap opera Dark Shadows and holding a steady grudge against director Tim Burton for the abrasive Charlie & the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland (not to mention Johnny Depp’s last run of disappointments), I went into Burton’s gothic-comic update of the original camp-cult favorite with more than a little trepidation. After two hours of gorgeously sedate visuals, a cast ready to savor every over-the-top characterization, and a fang-sharp script by novelist Seth Grahame-Smith (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) that left me chortling, I emerged from the darkness and accepted Tim Burton back into my heart (Frankenweenie is sure to keep that flame going until the next Alice in Wonderland snuffs it once more).
I am feeling particularly verbose in this review because much of the fun in Dark Shadows comes from the comical dandy-isms uttered by 18th-century gentleman vampire Barnabas Collins (Depp) after he is awakened in the year 1972 following a boring two hundred years buried quite-alive by the lustful witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green). Depp plays the verbal comedy with panache as his Barnabas looks aghast at every hot pant and electric light (“what strange illumens”). While the jokes are broad, they are not as intrusive as the misleading television campaign for this movie would suggest. The film is campy for sure, but it has a tragic tale of timeless devotion at the heart concerning Barnabus’ lost love now haunting the Collinwood manor and bearing suspicious resemblance to the new nanny Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote in a dual role).
At Collinwood, Barnabas meets the last dregs of a once-aristocratic family now presided over by the matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer radiant in goth garb) and her spineless thief of a husband (Trainspotting’s Jonny Lee Miller unrecognizable as a grown man). Chloe Grace-Moretz (Kick-Ass, Let Me In) steals yet another movie as the surly jailbait Carolyn Stoddard playing against Depp’s more manic energy with deadpan wit. Everyone works hard to make the characters believable and yet still willing to accept a bloodsucking monster into their home in exchange for some of his hidden fortune.
Since everyone mostly gets along at the old manse, it is left to love-spurned witch Angelique to promise havoc to Collinwood if Barnabas does not give in to her sexy wiles. The coolest scenes in Dark Shadows play out in the long final act taking place at a 1972 8th-grader’s ideal Halloween party, with a cameo from Alice Cooper (de-aged by the magic Of CGI) making the movie feel like a true tribute to the “Monster Kid” era. Tim Burton’s idiosyncratic flair may have dimmed in recent years but the man still knows how to decorate for Halloween!
Burton could have so easily botched this reboot by overplaying the comedy or bombarding us with special effects; instead he fondly remembers to play to the feeling of quiet inspiration he would draw during after school viewings of the original Dark Shadows. From the slow opening credits showing a car winding its way through country roads to the strains of “Nights in White Satin,” you would be forgiven for thinking that you actually started watching Ordinary People, but the oh-so-1970s feel lets us know that Burton is going to take this very funny film seriously and give us his best work since Sleepy Hollow.