October 22, 2017

Posted May 13, 2012 by D. K. Holm

There were many ways that Tim Burton could have gone in adapting the 1966 – 1972 ABC soap opera Dark Shadows. He could have set the film in the time of the show, and hewed to its tone. He could have gone totally crazy with the satire and done it likeGreen Hornet, totally re-thinking it as a comedy. Or he could have updated it to the present, with websites and cell phones and Goth bands. What Mr. Burton chose to do was to blend his adaptation into the stew that he generally likes viewers to imbibe, sentimental melodrama with a comedic twist in it. He chose also to set the story in the same time period as the program, but infusing music, TV, and media of the time into the proceedings, which Dan Curtis, the creator of the show, didn’t do at the time. When the film’s trailers debuted, Dark Shadows fans were appalled, since the trailer emphasizes the film’s gags, but the outrage seems misplaced. Dark Shadows was already funny, a campy, outrageously melodramatic series in which the over-worked actors could never memorized their lines, visibly and audibly fumbling on camera to talk their way out of snafus.1

Burton’s Dark Shadows is a fish-out-of-water tale in which most of the humor derives from a vampire named Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), awaking after being entombed for 196 years, coping with such things as automobiles, television consoles, and Alice Cooper.

As Collins explains in the opening sequence, he was in love with Josette, but had an affair with a clingy Angelique. Angelique killed his parents, sent Josette over a cliff, and turned Barnabas into a vampire (how she could do this is not explained in the sequence, nor is how one “curses” someone into vampiredom, but in the original series Angelique has a specific background that enables her powers). This opening is quite beautifully done and perhaps one of the best sequences that Burton has ever committed to screen. There is nothing “funny” or satirical about it while it evokes the primary strain of Burton’s interests – emo-Gothic sentimentality and depression. It has cliffs and crashing waves, wind and a weepy male protagonist who suffers a great loss. Later, when Barnabas grows Nosferatu-sized hands and fingernails, he is even more like the sad loner Edward Scissorshands. All of this ultimately comes from the Corman-Poe films with Vincent Price as a the tormented isolated misunderstood lover in mourning.1.2

When Barnabas is resurrected by excavators in 1972 he makes his way back to Collinswood, the family manse, and straightaway introduces himself to Elizabeth Collins Stoddard as what he is, a vampire, with the promise that he won’t attack his blood relations (unlike in the TV show). Soon he learns that the Collins family industry, a fishery, has been in decline for almost as long as he’s been gone, driven down by a rival corporation run by Angelique, who is also still alive (not clearly explained). In four roughly 20 minute “acts” the film culminates in an epic battle between Angelique, Barnabas, and the Collins family amid the burning remains of the estate.

Along with being wonderful to look at, the film has an excellent cast. Michelle Pfeiffer is in solid matriarch mode as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard.2 Helena Bonham Carter, the Burton pre-spouse, is Dr. Julia Hoffman, an annoying figure in the series, and who here takes the opportunity to study the new unique head of the household. Jackie Earle Haley is amusing as Willie Loomis and Jonny Lee Miller3 is Roger Collins4. Bella Heathcote is angelic as Victoria Winters-Josette DuPres; while the original series was about her character, the script here at least gives her a mysterious past, one of parental neglect, which translates as her being a Burton “favorite.” Christopher Lee makes a cameo5. Chloë Grace Moretz of the Dakota Fanning school of attractive younger stars, is Carolyn Stoddard. Lara Parker6 as Angelique was the hottest villainous on TV, and here the character is played by Bond girl Eva Green. Looking a little like Mena Suvari, Ms. Green’s Angelique is a typical vengeful Burton narcissist who has been torturing the Collins family out of spite for two centuries.7

But the film is built around Barnabas, and Depp is great in the part, much more comfortable than he was as, say, the Mad Hatter or Sweeney Todd for Burton. He is almost Shakespearean in his grandeur, helped along by the dialogue credited to Seth Grahame-Smith (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), delivering lines such as “Witch, you cursed me to be this hideous creature! You may strategically place your wonderful lips upon my posterior and kiss it repeatedly!” “Here are my terms. Goest thou to hell, and swiftly please, and there may Mopheus himself suckle from your diseased teat.” “Surely you don’t let them call you ‘Vickie.’ A name like Victoria is so beautiful, I could not bear to part with a single syllable of it.” The rich use of archaic tropes makes the language weirdly more precise, such as when he says, “Know this: I mean to stay.” When Carolyn Stoddard asked in her petulant teenage way, “Are you stoned or something?,” Barnabas replies, “They tried stoning me, my dear. It did not work.” He wins her over when he books Alice Cooper for the household ball.8

The film has echoes of BeetlejuiceHarold and Maude, the TV show Once Upon a Time, with its long running curse, and the tone of the film is not all that far from that of a Wes Anderson movie in its belief in the enduring strength of young love. The film even evokes the crashing waves of the show’s opening credits. There is a quote from The Exorcist, and though there were no hippies in the original series, it is satisfying when Barnabas regretfully kills a group of beachside stoners for their blood. As Burton’s career has stretched out from his early successes the ups and downs have come increasingly frequently. But as with Dark Shadows, he is more successful if he sticks to his distinct Famous Monsters of Filmlandstyle.

1 Like horror line Marvel taking on superheroes in the early 1960s, Dark Shadows turning from gothic melodrama to monsters was the last gasp measure of a show facing cancellation.

1.2 The sequence ends with Barnabas looking down on his beloved from a great height, in a visual reference to to Vertigo that is probably conscious. The moment turns into a critique of Vertigo, though, when Barnabas follows Josette down to her fate, which is what Scotty should have done at the end of Hitchcock’s film.
2 And at the age of 52, she still has the most incredible lips in Hollywood.

3 Jonny Lee Miller and Depp must have had a lot to talk about, as they have stories to share about Angelina Jolie

4 Roger is eventually banished from the household but it wasn’t clear to me if he was a fraud, a non-Collins pretender or just a cheap thief.

5 Another Burtonian gesture back to the age of Hammer Films, Poe, Corman, and the Price nexus.

6 Jonathan Frid, the original Barnabas, along with Kathryn Leigh Scott (Victoria), Lara Parker (Angelique), and David Selby (Quentin Collins) have cameos in a ballroom sequence. The original Victoria is now semi-infamous for getting caught up in the Von Bulow case.

7 Burton and his costumers have so reconstructed Eva Green that she has become, Vertigo-like, a creature from Burton’s past, Lisa Marie, his muse in several films before he met Helena Bonham-Carter. If one were a gossipy sort, one might guess that Ms. Green might be next in line for Burton’s “lifelong” devotion.

8 The structure of the script is not perfect, however. David Collins, the ostensible reason for the presence of Victoria, vanishes for much of the movie until it is convenient that he return.