All right, you all know the drill by now: Tim Burton’s making a movie with a vaguely gothy look; Johnny Depp is really pale with funny hair and acting weird; original music by Danny Elfman; Helena Bonham Carter is probably around somewhere. The Burton-Depp pairing is almost a given; Depp has been in about half of all Burton-directed films so far, and not always for the better. Thankfully, it would be difficult to plumb lower depths than the Alice in Wonderland debacle, but that doesn’t set the bar very high for Dark Shadows. So maybe lowered expectations had something to do with how much I enjoyed this latest outing, but that can’t really be the whole story. Somehow, Burton managed to recapture some of that anarchic, fun spirit that animated Beetlejuice.
It probably helps that this is the closest Burton has come to originality in quite a while. The original Dark Shadows was an afternoon soap opera aimed at young viewers in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and it never really had the cult pop-culture life that other old, campy properties have had. Burton seems to be at his best when working relatively unknown ground; his gems like Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Big Fish are amazing flights of fantasy, while his clinkers like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland come from his attempts to strip-mine beloved works of art. Dark Shadows presents a middle ground: a known property that was good, but never really great. Maybe Burton has learned his lesson, since he seems to treat this one with far more care.
Dark Shadows is not only a soap opera, but a paranormal soap opera. It centers on the Collins family, living in the ancestral mansion of Collinwood, on the outskirts of the Maine fishing village of Collinsport. The town predates the American revolution, when the family brought their fishing empire over from Liverpool. The young scion, Barnabas (Depp) had a dalliance with one of the maids, Angelique (Eva Green), but spurned her for Josette (Bella Heathcote). Unfortunately, Angelique was a witch who cursed Barnabas to live forever as a vampire, encased in a metal coffin, buried underground.
Two-hundred years later, in October of 1972, some workers unearth Barnabas. The Collins family has been reduced to four: the matriarch, Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her teenaged daughter, Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz), her venal brother, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), and his precocious son, David (Gulliver McGrath). They live in Collinwood with an elderly maid (Ray Shirley), a drunken caretaker (Jackie Earle Haley), a live-in psychiatrist (Helena Bonham Carter, still wearing her Red Queen makeup), and a governess who’s the spitting image of Barnabas’ lost Josette (Heathcote again). The family cannery has been driven into the ground by competition from Angel Bay, headed by none other than the porcelain-skinned Angelique herself. If he wants to restore the family’s former glory, Barnabas has his work cut out for him.
I wasn’t around when the show was first on, so I can’t say whether it played relatively straight with its own times. This time around, at least, there’s plenty of mileage to be made out of Barnabas’ bemusement by what you have to admit were pretty bemusing times. I mean, hippies? lava lamps? Alice Cooper? For the most part the cast play it with a soap opera’s arch melodrama, which allows the situations’ own bone-dry humor to work. But every so often — the sex-fight scene from the trailer is a prime example — the movie gets the dumb idea to try to be funny, and in trying it fails.
But other than those hiccups, it’s actually pretty funny. Sure, there are too many plotlines to fit neatly within the film’s running time. And sure, the script doesn’t seem to know how to wrap itself up. And sure, Moretz is utterly wasted on being sullen and, well, more than a little bitchy. The movie has enough well-earned humor to forgive these lapses — along with a killer early-’70s soundtrack — and that’s really about all I really need from it.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.