“They say blood is thicker than water…my name is Barnabas Collins.”
In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s Dark Shadows dominated the mid-day television landscape. I remember wanting to rush home from school each day to catch the horror soap opera. The daytime series had a little bit of something for everyone. There were the typical soap opera conventions for the mellow-dramatic housewives and other serious themes for the adults. But there were some wonderfully exotic fantastic elements that appealed to the kids. The show broke soap opera convention in that it ran only a half hour, perfect for our short attention spans after a day at school. It’s no wonder that the show has endured in our pop culture 40 years after it left the television airwaves.
When I first heard that Johnny Depp and Tim Burton were bringing their talents to a Dark Shadows film I was quite elated. I truly believed that these two with their particular blend of dark and twisted style of filmmaking was exactly what the franchise needed to get back on its feet. Then I saw the first trailer and my heart dropped 10,000 feet in a second. The trailer exposes a farce or spoof where fans expected a loving tribute. Suddenly, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to see this film that I have waited years to see. Now I’ve finally seen the film, and I’ve never been so torn over a movie in all my life.
The story is certainly a passable tale. Barnabas Collins (Depp) is the heir to the considerable Collins fortune. The family came from England to Maine where they settled a town and dominated the fishing industry. The family constructed a huge estate called Collinwood, and there Barnabas fell in love with his lovely Josette (Heathcote). But the evil witch Angelique (Green) wanted Barnabas for herself. When she is rejected she takes her revenge by killing Josette and putting a vampire curse on Barnabas. He’s imprisoned in a coffin and buried.
Two hundred years later, and it’s the 1970’s. The Collins family has fallen upon hard times indeed. The estate is in disrepair, and their fishing empire has been taken by another outfit, run by, you guessed it….Angelique. You see, it wasn’t enough to destroy Barnabas. She dedicated her life to destroying the Collins family.
Collinwood is now inhabited by Elizabeth Stoddard Collins (Pfeiffer), the family matron, her brother Roger (Miller) and two young members of the family: Carolyn Stoddard (Moretz) and David Collins (McGrath). They are joined on the estate by Dr. Julia Hoffman (Carter) who is there to help David deal with the tragic loss of his mother. They are pitifully all that remain of the once proud and strong Collins family. That is, until a construction crew unearth the coffin containing Barnabas. Barnabas decides to return the family to its glory and fight Angelique. There’s also the pretty young nanny who has recently come to Collinwood. It appears that Victoria Winters looks exactly like Josette.
At first the film plays out just like fans of the show hoped it would. Depp delivers a narrative that sets up the history of the Collins family and his own fate. The film here is wonderfully atmospheric and gothic. You will be instantly reminded of the Hammer films of old which even includes a very sweet cameo by Christopher Lee. Even to the point of the first few minutes in the 1970’s Burton is remaining true to these roots. I’m happy to say that much of the film retains these rather beautifully dark moments and absolutely lives up to every fan’s dreams. But soon enough Burton turns those dreams into nightmares.
There are very awkward moments throughout the film where everyone is reaching for humor of the worst kind. Humor is fine in even the darkest of horror films, but this goes beyond comic relief. The jokes are a huge stretch and instantly remove you from the mood and atmosphere that Burton does such an awesome job of creating for us in the first place. The jokes rip you out of the film as if some hacker has found a way to hijack and interrupt the movie you are trying to watch. These interruptions might bring the laughs, but they are distracting and unnecessary. Depp considered the role a dream come true, and he does exhibit some reverence for the part. Then there are other times when he injects his unfortunate drag queen persona into the mix. The overuse of the white makeup in his characters is also getting a bit tiresome. Don’t get me wrong. I believe Johnny Depp is truly one of the most gifted actors on the planet. But he does have a tendency to get too carried away, and there are more than a few of those moments here.
What makes these reaches so disturbing is that, at its core, this retelling of Dark Shadows is actually quite brilliant. I expected that Burton could capture the style, and he does. The cast are all quite good in their roles. Eva Green doesn’t have quite the presence that Lara Parker might have had in her portrayal, but Green holds her own, making the character her own. The always incredible young actress Chloe Grace Moretz is underused in her role of Carolyn. Jackie Earle Haley provides the more appropriate comic relief as Willy, Barnabas’ Renfield. Haley is quite good as the mute character and brings out the kind of laughs the show should have been content to rely upon. Alice Cooper makes a grand extended cameo as himself and manages to look remarkably like his 1970’s alter-ego for a solid performance. Jonathan Frid (the original Barnabas) is given a cameo so brief it makes the Marvel Stan Lee cameos look like a guest star role. Unfortunately, Frid passed away soon after doing the role.
The film does not appear to utilize the original theme although the classic opening credits scene is given an extended tribute. The most lasting images I have of the show were the crashing waves of the intro. Most of the soundtrack includes pop songs from the early 70’s. The opening credits roll to Nights In White Satin. Some of the songs are used quite effectively while others play into the over-the-top camp that steers the film too far astray.
When asked for a quote as I left the screening the only thing I could think of was to quote another popular 1970’s television character: Maxwell Smart, “missed it by that much”. Here’s the problem. Fans of the original show, people like myself who feel an attachment to that material, will love the gothic moments in the film. We’ll even forgive the fact that Burton tried to do too much and infuse far too many elements from 2200 episodes in two hours. We’ll even understand that characters needed some changes to square with a 21st century audience. I doubt that these core fans wanted a spoof. The folks out there who love spoofs aren’t necessarily connected enough to Dark Shadows to appreciate the jokes, let alone shell out the clams to go and see a Dark Shadows movie. The camp approach was tried on 70’s properties like Stasky & Hutch, and look how that turned out. Burton appears to think he can cover both camps with a single film. He couldn’t. And he didn’t. If you’ve heard anything different, “then you would be hearing a lie”.