In a 2007 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Johnny Depp proudly stated that, as he grew up watching Dark Shadows, he wanted to be the vampire Barnabas Collins. “I think lots of kids did,” he said. “He was super-mysterious, with that really weird hairdo and the wolf’s-head cane. Good stuff.” Depp is now luckier than ever to be dear friends with Tim Burton; apart from the fact that he helmed this year’s film adaptation of the gothic soap opera, he gave Depp the chance to live his dream by casting him as Barnabas Collins. I grant you that this is nepotism, but you’d be hard pressed to convince me that any living actor would have been better suited for this role. Depp is of an elite group of actors who can disappear into a role so thoroughly that it’s difficult to tell where the real person ends and the character begins.
Dark Shadows is just plain fun, simultaneously an homage to and a parody of the original soap opera. In much the same way as Burton’s own Beetlejuice, it represents a delicate balancing act between comedy and horror. Unlike Beetlejuice, the comedy has a bit more bite, and the horror is more elegant and brooding, as if it was taken straight from the pages of a Victorian gothic novel. As is the case with all Tim Burton movies, it’s also a triumph of art direction and set decoration. Praise must be given to production designer Rick Heinrichs, whose vision for Collinwood Manor playfully blends whimsy with authentic period architecture. Here is a man who knows how to create the right atmosphere for a story like this. Surely he and Burton have influenced each other, given the fact that the two have now collaborated on thirteen projects.
A prologue sequence serves as an expository introduction to Barnabas Collins. When he was a boy in 1752, he and his parents sailed from Liverpool to Maine to expand their family-run fishing business. The city of Collinsport was established, and over the course of fifteen years, Collinwood Manor was built. As a young man, Barnabas made the mistake of spurning an infatuated servant girl named Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), who also happened to be a witch. Enraged, she took her revenge on Barnabas by killing his parents and hypnotizing every young woman he fell in love with into jumping off a cliff. The last of them was his true love, Josette du Pres (Bella Heathcote). Barnabas attempted to join her in death, but was instead cursed by Angelique into becoming a vampire (an interesting new twist on the vampire mythos, to say the least). She then turned the townspeople against him. Ultimately, he was buried in a chained coffin the middle of the forest.
We then flash forward 196 years to 1972, at which point a young woman named Victoria Winters (also played by Heathcote) travels by train up to Collinsport, where she hopes to become the new governess for the remaining descendants of the Collins family. She arrives at a now dilapidated Collinwood and meets: The matriarchal Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer); her moody and rebellious teenage daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz); her stodgy and greedy brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller); her ten-year-old nephew David (Gulliver McGrath), who lost his mother and claims he can still speak to her; David’s live-in psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), who is herself in desperate need of counseling; and the manor’s caretaker Willie Loomis (Jackie Earl Haley), a perpetually drunk goofball.
Barnabas is accidentally liberated from his prison by a construction crew, most of whom are unfortunately sucked dry of their blood. Despite the astronomical generation gap – he’s understandably bewildered by a McDonald’s sign, a TV set, car headlights, asphalt, a lava lamp, a mirror ball, and the fact that women are allowed to be doctors – he returns to Collinwood determined to revamp his once thriving fishing business and in turn restore his family’s honor. The competition, and this should not surprise anyone, is presided over by none other than Angelique, who now calls herself Angie. When she learns that Barnabas has escaped, she simultaneously vows to win him back and to destroy his business and family for good.
The film is obviously supposed to in part be funny. Much of the humor stems from Barnabas’ difficultly in adapting to late twentieth-century American culture. This includes having to contend with a group of pot-smoking hippies and an appearance by Alice Cooper, who Barnabas declares is the ugliest woman he has ever seen. But it’s also supposed to be gothic and melodramatic, ghosts, werewolves, black magic, and even a romance between Barnabas and the secretive Victoria all finding their way into the plot. I’ve heard complaints about the meandering storyline and sudden shifts in tone, which I find strange given that the beloved original series frequently made use of overly dramatic plot twists. You cannot expect Dark Shadows to be anything more than what it is.
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Warner Bros. Pictures