About twenty minutes into Dark Shadows, which has steadily built up a gothic horror ambience, there is a moment that literally gave me goosebumps. It’s one of only a few moments of subtlety and nuance and possibly the moment that I knew that I was having a good, creepy time.
Tim Burton and Johnny Depp’s Dark Shadows [Depp is a producer and the main reason the movie got made] takes key elements of the ‘70s soap and mixes them together in unexpected ways [a good trick since, I’m told, the soap was pretty off the wall].
The film opens with a prologue that shows how young Barnabas Collins [Depp] was cursed by the witch Angelique [Eva Green] for spurning her love – putting a supernatural spin on what might otherwise have been a typical Upstairs/Downstairs relationship gone wrong. Collins’ family, you see, had emigrated from Liverpool and built a fishing empire centered in a town named after them, Collinsport.
Angelique’s curse caused Barnabas’ One True Love, Josette, to commit suicide and changed Barnabas into a vampire when he tried to follow her. Shortly thereafter, the townspeople, led by the furious witch, bound him chains and buried him in a cold iron coffin – until, 196 years later , a construction crew accidentally frees him and becomes his first meal in almost two centuries [he really is very thirsty, but he has the good manners to apologize].
Soon he arrives at the once proud Collins home, Collinwood, now in disrepair – the second new arrival in mere days. The first was Victoria Winters [Bella Heathcote], who has become the new governess for David [Gully McGrath], whose mother died at sea – and whose voice he still hears in his head, and whose father is Roger [Jonny Lee Miller] – a man who cares more for money than family but has nowhere else to go.
The moldering mansion is ruled over by matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard [Michelle Pfeiffer] with a firm hand and a complete devotion to family. The only other Collins is Elizabeth’s daughter, Carolyn [Chloe Grace Moretz], a sulky fifteen-year old whose musical tastes clash with the rest of the clan – at least until Barnabas comes along. The final piece of the Collinwood picture is alcoholic psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman [Helena Bonham Carter], who is allegedly trying to help David deal with life without his mother.
The estate is tended, sloppily, by Willie Loomis [Jackie Earle Haley], another alcoholic, who becomes Barnabas’ personal servant.
In this time, the Collins Cannery is a ruin and supplanted by Angelique’s Angel Bay company and the Collinses are mostly ignored by the townspeople. The screenplay, by Seth Grahame-Smith, fluctuates between being a fish out of water tale – as Barnabas attempts to understand the strange new world in which he has awakened – and a gothic horror tale replete with vampires, witches, ghosts, werewolves and all the weirdness that comes with them.
Most of best moments come from Barnabas trying to adjust to 1972 – his first encounter with television; his revulsion at seeing a lava lamp in Carolyn’s room – though there are some fine moments of pure gothic horror as well. The goosebumps moment I referred to above is genuinely chilling, and the possibility that Victoria might be the reincarnated love of Barnabas Collins’ life, Josette [for whom he spurned Angelique] also contributes a few genuinely creepy moments.
Depp is right at home as Barnabas whether he’s ripping out the innards of a television in search of Karen Carpenter, or persuading a fishing boat captain [Christopher Lee] to break his contract with Angel Bay to fish for the Collins family. He also masters the art of perfect stillness to good effect in a montage that finds Barnabas ‘sleeping’ in an assortment of unlikely places.
In fact, the entire cast seems right in their roles – even when a kind of good-bad acting is required, as with the florid performance of Bonham Carter as Dr. Hoffman, or the classic contrary teen Moretz plays.
Don’t blink once the Collins ‘happening’ begins [I didn’t mention that? Well some things are best left to be discovered] or you’ll miss the original Barnabas Collins, Jonathan Frid’s cameo.
As always, with a Burton film, the production design is astonishing. Collinwood, before and after the fall from grace of the Collinses – with its secret passages – some already discovered and use as closets for sporting gear and/or macramé]; the brightly efficient offices at Angel Bay; Carolyn’s room – are Burtonesque creations that fit right in with his previous work.
The sound is exceptionally good – and the Alice Cooper set is a fun counterpoint to the more supernatural creepiness.
Where Dark Shadows feels like it missed the boat a bit, is in the way that Burton only really pulls out the stops in the film’s last ten minutes – and revelations came so fast and furious that it takes a few minutes to catch one’s breath when the closing credits roll.
Then there’s the question of why Dark Shadows was released on the Friday between The Avengers and Battleship. Surely it would have been a perfect Halloween release.
Overall, Dark Shadows, for all its split personality, is smart and fun. It’s almost like getting two movies for one ticket. I enjoyed its half campy side, but loved the half Goth side [though I’m still not sure which side Alice Cooper belongs on…]. Dark Shadows is good fun, but I think it really could have been great fun.
Final Grade: B
Photos by Peter Mountain and Greg Zabiliski/Courtesy of Warner Bros.