“Witch, you cursed me to be this hideous creature! You may strategically place your wonderful lips upon my posterior and kiss it repeatedly!” Barnabas Collins, Dark Shadows (2012)
In our last episode, I hinted at my concern over the form my beloved Dark Shadows threatened to take in 2012: a major motion picture directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp as vampire Barnabas Collins. From the moment I saw the first picture from the production, one of a chalky-white Barnabas walking on the beach, I feared the approach this update was going to take. For the longest time, I didn’t know if his version of the 60s daytime drama (soap opera) was going to be classic Batman-Edward Scissorhands Burton (that would be good) or current Charlie & the Chocolate Factory-Alice in Wonderland Burton (that would be bad).
Then, only a few weeks ago, the trailer for Dark Shadows was finally released. It was obvious that even if Burton wasn’t going with an all-out comedic approach, Warner Brothers certainly was going to market it that way. I should have expected this from all those involved; however, my heart still sank with the notion that this movie was not going to be the loving tribute I wanted it to be. Fans like me expressed their outrage while, at the same time, Burton assured us it would respect the original series, which he and Depp reportedly grew up watching after school, just as many of us did.
Watching the new Dark Shadows, I was surprised by my reaction. Expecting it to be too “funny”, I actually think it wasn’t funny enough; and, expecting it to stray too far from familiar storylines, I actually think it didn’t stray far enough. Bless Burton’s heart for trying, but in retrospect I think he should have taken a few more liberties and let loose with the characters and story. It’s actually quite sedate for him, going truly crazy only during its frantic climax.
Now, when I say it wasn’t funny enough, please understand that I watched the trailer many, many times, trying to prepare myself for the different approach it seemed to be taking. The first few times, many of its scenes were quite funny, but I didn’t laugh when seeing them in the actual movie. The good news is that there are an equal number of entirely new laughs that caught me by surprise. Combined, though, I think either the dramatic aspects outweighed the comedic or the comedic aspects just weren’t as consistently funny as the dramatic aspects were dramatic.
When I say it didn’t stray far enough from familiar storylines, that is only because too many of them are crammed into Seth Grahame-Smith’s busy screenplay. This makes for a highly episodic movie that doesn’t seem to have one consistent narrative flow. It works when summarizing Barnabas’s back story (sailing to America in 1750, constructing the family estate of Collinwood and suffering the wrath of vengeful witch, Angelique) because it all covered pre-opening credits. But it doesn’t work as well when multiple subplots are spread throughout the rest of the movie.
This doesn’t mean that I didn’t like a lot of things about Dark Shadows. As a fan, I was able to connect some dots and expand upon some plot elements in my memory. I was able to appreciate some subtle shout-outs to the original series. Having young governess Maggie Evans change her name to Victoria Winters was a brilliant decision, combining two characters and using the histories of both. (In fact, a detailed backstory for the character for the first time is one of the fresh elements of the screenplay.) And I mostly liked the other tweaks to the storylines, some of which enhanced the personalities of the players.
Speaking of the personalities, I loved all but one of the cast’s interpretations. Depp does another exemplary job and, like you’d expect, has some great lines. I enjoyed him more than I have in many other recent movies. Michelle Pfeiffer breathes new life into the character of Elizabeth, who historically didn’t have a lot to do with the story. Jonny Lee Miller’s Roger is a little more subtle, but has some hilarious mannerisms. Helena Bonham Carter is terrific as Dr. Julia Hoffman; there’s not enough of her in the movie. My one disappointment is Chloe Grace Moretz. Her Carolyn is probably meant to represent the rebellious 60s youth counterculture, but it didn’t work for me. Unfortunately, she’s featured more than some of the others. (And I loathed what happens with her in the final stretch of the movie.)
I was pleased with Danny Elfman’s music; it’s been several movies since I’ve really liked one of his scores. But in Dark Shadows, it’s creepy, dramatic and thrilling in all the right places, with just a hint of Robert Cobert’s classic themes here and there. My one disappointment is that there’s no nod to Josette’s music box, the lovely and haunting melody that has been present in all other variations of the source material. The movie is also heavy in 70s music, fitting its setting. To demonstrate the somewhat sedate Burton I mentioned earlier, the opening credits are simple superimpositions over the scenery while Knights in White Satin plays instead of an elaborate animated sequence featuring zany Elfman music.
Dark Shadows handles two overall themes very well: the strength of family and the fish out of water/vampire out of time. If anything is consistent in the movie, it’s the family theme, mentioned in the first few minutes and carried through to the very end. It’s kind of sweet and reassuring, to know that whatever a family faces, even if it’s ghosts, witches and vampires, they always have each other. And Barnabas’s reaction to awakening after nearly 200 years of captivity is not as prominent as I feared it would be. Also a consistent theme, but not quite as heavy as that of family, it provides some of the movie’s biggest laughs.
There are probably more people in the potential audience for Dark Shadows who are not fans of the original than there are who are fans; people who won’t recognize original series actors in their brief cameos versus those who will. What will the non-fans think of the movie? It’s hard for me to use much objectivity, but after talking with some of them after the movie, they seemed to share my criticisms of too much going on. However, they did seem to mostly enjoy it. My guess is that it’s entertaining enough for most people, and with Johnny Depp in another iconic role, it will please moviegoers for at least a week until the next summer blockbuster is released.