Warning: minor spoilers below. I had the great good fortune of attending the premiere of Tim Burton’s new film based on the cult t.v. show. Being a fan of the original t.v. show, I may have enjoyed the new film version of Dark Shadows a little bit more than others. Just a tiny bit. When a famous line was recreated word for word, or four stars of the series made a cameo, or when an unexpected character showed up, these felt like the kind of tributes real fans might enjoy most. Sadly, a lot won’t give it a chance. For those who don’t know, die-hard fans of the gothic soap opera have been fighting a civil war with words for about a year over this movie. Some simply could not imagine this story without the original actors. Others made wild assumptions about the film. Still others hate Tim Burton films in general. And all too many insist they are the only “true” fans.
Essentially this latest telling centers on Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) who came with his parents to Maine and founded a town, eventually building a palatial home called Collinwood. Historically a lot of these details are bunk, but they fit consistently into their own little world. Much like the original. The handsome Barnabas has an eye for the ladies, but the serving girl Angelique (Eva Green) who’d been with the family even in England, has an eye for him. She is a witch. More, she is crazy. Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction isn’t this wacko. Among other things, she kills the girl Barnabas loves, Josette (Bella Heathcote) and transforms Barnabas himself into a vampire. Townspeople chain him up in a coffin, then bury him alive. Or undead.
Cut to 1972. To the tune of “Knights in White Satin” (this flick has a very nice film score, including a cool selection of period songs) we see a young lady on a train, clutching in her hand a want-ad for a governess. Soon we learn her name is Maggie Evans, but then and there decides an alias–Victoria Winters. She looks exactly like Josette. In voiceover we learn she is going somewhere on behalf of a “very old friend.” Finding out who that friend is becomes one a many really interesting twists in the tale, especially to those who know the convoluted storyline of the t.v. show. It also highlights an issue.
Is Dark Shadows a comedy?
Not as easy a question to answer as it might seem. Burton’s films often deal with excessively tragic subject matter. A desperately lonely artificial boy who will never ever fit in. A happy young couple killed and haunting their home. The efforts of a constable to solve a series of grisly murders that touch upon his own horrific memories of childhood. He offsets same with lots of dashes of his own zany humor. This is precisely what he does in this. When workman on a construction site accidentally release Barnabas from his prison, they pay the price with their lives. Almost immediately we see a recurring theme in the film played for both humor and pathos–this 18th century gentleman trying to adjust to the 1970s. He stops short at a paved road, never having seen asphalt before. Electric signs baffle him. As do modern fashions. His speech remains laced with anachronisms. It makes for a lot of laughs. But unlike so many “comedies” this is not just one joke after another a la Vampires Suck or the Scary Movies. More like Young Frankenstein, it plays up the humor in the midst of human drama. Barnabas has but one real anchor in this strange new world. His family. Matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), her hippie daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), her brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller) and his son David (Gulliver McGrath) who remains so traumatized from his mother Laura’s death the family has a live-in psychiatrist, Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter). That this family barely functions and is under attack from his old enemy Angelique gives Barnabas something to do. Much as when the late Jonathan Frid played the role, this Barnabas becomes the Collins’ fierce, stubborn, idiosyncratic guardian demon. He enters into an alliance with Elizabeth, barely tolerates the oafish Roger, almost immediately bonds with David and begins a slow process of winning over the unhappy, disdainful Carolyn.
More, he falls in love. One can see why he falls for Vicky, the new governess, for she consistently demonstrates a quiet strength and courage complementary to his own flamboyant virtues. This matches up with the original series. In fact, there’s a lot in terms of family dynamics and overall feel that does. A witch and a vampire are joined by ghosts and at least one other supernatural being. The sense of secrets undisclosed, histories not told but ever-present pervade the film. Almost too much. After all, Dark Shadows had over 1200 episodes! Try condensing even a fraction of that into less than two hours! Small wonder some minor characters hardly exist, like Mrs. Johnson (Ray Shirley).
So is it a comedy? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense it plays up a lot of what could be funny. One character, Willie (Jackie Earle Haley), gets played almost entirely for laughs. But it remains a drama, at times a tragedy. Not at all a farce or slapstick, but very funny in many moments. Which works interestingly to make the melodramatic style more serious. There’s a scene where Barnabas wallows in his despair and sinks his head onto the keyboard of an organ. Well, tis a 1970s organ and chirpy upbeat tempos emerge from the thing. He is too depressed to care. Elizabeth notices and quietly turns the organ ‘off.’ That could have been played for a lot more humor, with double-takes and ever-wilder sound effects. Yet it isn’t. And the audience titters slightly, but doesn’t guffaw. A delicate balance.
Some won’t see it that way. Humor remains very personal. I think more furor might pop up over the amount of sex in the film. I myself felt a little startled. Everyone who’s seen the trailers knows Barnabas and Angelique have at it with an abandon worthy of Spike and Buffy, all the more fierce because neither is really human. We also really get a sense of a wild alchemical attraction between the two (sprinkled with odd bits of tenderness, which I liked very much). But suffice to say Angelique is not the only woman to not only feel attracted to Barnabas, but act on in a very physical manner. Very. It doesn’t take a lot of screen time, but my eyebrows shot up to the hairline for a few seconds.
Along the way, let me say the vampire “look” works more and more as one sees it. Early on, in a really excellent moment, we share Barnabas’ viewpoint as he sees his fingers turn into claws! Then he screams, from a mouth that now contains fangs. The pallor, the dark circles around his eyes — it seemed to me as if someone decided to take Graf Orlock from Nosferatu and make him handsome, without taking away the monstrous otherness of him.
It all builds to the kind of gigantic climax one gets in feature film rather than a t.v. series. Angelique unveils the full range of her powers against the Collins family, in a full-blown battle using the kind of special effects undreamt-of back in the day. Plenty of tributes to the original series abound, but also some to Burton’s earlier films (like one involving a staircase and some sculpture). What it really focuses upon, though, remains the drama. Even at the end, Barnabas with all his hatred of Angelique, cannot help but feel a shred of tenderness towards this girl he knew all his life. More, the climax really isn’t that fight. We don’t reach the story’s end until the real story comes to its climax–not the fight against Angelique, but against the terrible curse of Barnabas’ loneliness. Not just his. All the pyrotechnics is really about the family coming together, healing as even the children enter into a fight against this insane, powerful creature out to destroy them all out of twisted love. Pull aside all the humor, the style, the weird drama, the lush details, Dark Shadows comes across as a story of Obsession Versus Love.
You can see in general release on Friday, May 11 2012. Or midnight, May 10 in some markets. Please let us know what you think!