Rip Van Winkle’s 20-year snooze is a power nap compared to the time Barnabas Collins has spent buried in the ground, lying in a coffin shut tight with heavy chains. The protagonist of Tim Burton’s merrily macabre Dark Shadows was put there way back in the 1750s. But why is he there?
We find out in a graceful touch as we find out the backstory in an entertaining pre-credits sequence that tells how Collins (Johnny Depp) became a vampire. When Barnabas, whose Liverpool parents move to Maine and build a fishing empire, spurns witch Angelique (Eva Green), she turns him into a vampire who will dwell in an underground penalty box until he changes his mind. In fact, he deserved what he got for his unaccountable taste in women - what man in his right mind would say no Green
Adapted from the daytime Gothic soap of the late ’60s and early ’70s - a seminal TV experience for the prepubescent Burton - Dark Shadows is a nutty romp that’s as much about celebrating a significant blip in the pop-cult continuum as it is a tale of bloodsucking, of grudge-holding, and the stress involved in maintaining a 200-room, two-century-old house
In 1972, the casket is uprooted by a construction crew at Collinwood Manor. Having slumbered for so long, Barnabas happens to be extremely thirsty. Bad luck for the chaps in the hard hats
And so Barnabas heads up to Collinwood Manor, the crumbling manse where he finds the family matriarch, Elizabeth (a welcome return by Michelle Pfeiffer), presiding over a dysfunctional clan. There is the raging sulkhead Carolyn (Chloe Moretz), and there is Elizabeth’s deadbeat brother, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), not sure what to make of his inquisitive 10-year-old, David (Gully McGrath). There are so many problems here that the Collinses have a live-in shrink, Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), who happens to be drunk most of the time. Jackie Earle Haley, hunched and hoary, is the caretaker, Willie.
But it’s the two women in Barnabas’ (very long) life that really matter: Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote) is a young lass hired on to nanny David, but she bears a striking resemblance to Josette, the ethereal beauty Barnabas fatefully fell for in the mid-18th century
And Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), the jealous witch who buried Barnabas alive when he professed his love for another, is now Angie, a hard-charging exec who runs a cannery on the Collinsport docks. When Barnabas and Angelique meet again, they tear the place up - literally. It’s an epic I-hate-you/I-lust-for-you set piece, beautifully pulled off with acrobatic flair
Barnabas still acts and talks as if it were 1770, or like Johnny Depp in half of his movies. He sees a car’s headlights and thinks he is seeing the eyes of the devil. He sees a television set and believes that little people are trapped inside. You might think that the fish-out-of-water aspect might get old after two or three jokes, but Dark Shadows successfully taps that vein (ouch!), for the entire movie
Part of the success comes from the fact that 1972 is alien not just to him, but to many of us. Pinpointing the era - lovingly - is very much what Dark Shadows has on its mind. While there’s a tangle of romance and vengeance and all sorts of family matters to deal with, Burton’s film is really about hippies in bell-bottoms, stoned out in their VW micro-buses. It’s about shag carpeting, lava lamps, and troll dolls. The marquee of Collinsport’s movie theater offers another chrono-cultural tipoff: Deliverance is playing one week, Super Fly the next
But wait, there’s more. When Barnabas returns to his ancestral home, the lady of the house, his distant relation Elizabeth makes him promise not to tell the rest of the household that he’s a vampire. And so we get a perfect farce setup, in which the audience knows what’s going on but most of the characters are only confused, as Barnabas picks up a fork and blithely remarks, “Had this been real silver, my hand would have burst into flame at the slightest touch”
All this comedy in constant motion makes it possible for Dark Shadows to concentrate on the plot mechanics only to the extent that they’re interesting: Barnabas finds himself in an ongoing battle with Angelique, who, being a witch, is eternally youthful and running half the town. These scenes between the fabulously confident Angelique and the dignified but easily rattled Barnabas are as funny as anything in the film. But this is also where the filmmakers inject a touch, the slightest touch, of seriousness. Angelique really is in love with this guy. She should get her head examined
The sets and atmospherics are up to Tim Burton’s usual high standard - he usually gets those right - and though Burton and his music supervisor missed an ideal vintage hit for their soundtrack: Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” would have perfectly described Depp’s skin tone, the movie boasts an inspired retro playlist: The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” sets the tone over the opening credits, and Donovan’s “Season of the Witch,” T. Rex’s “Get It On,” and the Carpenters’ “Top of the World” pinpoint the era with buoyant specificity
Better-than-ever Depp delivers the quips in the script by Seth Grahame-Smith on a deadpan platter. Surrounding Depp is a stellar supporting cast, delightfully gimmicky sets and that guilty-pleasure soundtrack
Dark Shadows may be too light for vampire purists or fans of the original show, but fresh blood is just what the doctor ordered. Go see it
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