Tim Burton and Johnny Depp fans rejoice.
The new film “Dark Shadows” is another perfect vehicle for these two superb talents to combine all their creative skills into one wonderfully entertaining mix of gothic drama, darkness and campy fun. Even better, these two frequent on-screen collaborators have taken their mutual childhood affection for the cult 1960’s TV classic and kept much of the show’s unique creepiness and melodrama intact, while injecting a healthy, but not overpowering, dose of humor.
The movie trailers that tease Tim Burton’s cinematic vision of the classic “Dark Shadows” would have audiences imagine the film is an over the top, campy comedy. Thankfully, the actual product on screen pays considerable respectful homage to the moody gothic spirit and tone of the original show; while at the same time, effectively and gently tweaks the absurdity of a sophisticated 18th century vampire dealing with the loony, pop-culture saturated goofiness of the early 1970’s that becomes his new living environment.
The original ABC-TV soap opera, “Dark Shadows” was unique in it’s gothic horror and melodrama played out for five seasons, every weekday afternoon from 1966-1971 amid competition from game shows and other soaps set in the modern day. The show centered on the ongoing supernatural events surrounding the wealthy and dysfunctional Collins family, presided over by their undead vampire relative, Barnabas Collins.
Burton and Depp not only affectionately capture the essence of their childhood afternoon TV diversion; but also bring an effective comedic twist to the obvious “fish out of water” problems ignored in the original, which was played as dead pan straight melodrama.
Depp plays Barnabas Collins, who at the film’s start, is a normal wealthy aristocrat in the Maine town of Collinsport during the mid 1700’s. His family has built the town into a thriving fishing community; while the family itself equally thrives and prospers within the walls of it’s proud Collinwood Manor.
Alas, Barnabas falls in love with the beautiful Josette ( Bella Heathcote ) which incurs the jealous wrath of Angelique ( Eva Green ) a witch skilled in the evil arts with whom Barnabas has a loveless dalliance.
When Barnabas ultimately spurns Angelique, she vengefully drives Josette to throw herself from a cliff to her death, and then curses Barnabas by turning him into a vampire and locking him away in a buried coffin, presumably forever.
Fast forward to 1972, and a group of construction workers accidentally dig up and release Barnabas. After being locked up for two centuries, Barnabas is understandably thirsty and kills the workers before realizing he’s now in a very foreign world than the one he once knew.
Barnabas returns to his beloved Collinwood Manor, only to find it’s fallen into neglected disrepair and hard times. It’s also inhabited by his dysfunctionally eccentric family descendants headed by the family matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard. ( Michelle Pfeiffer, looking much more beautiful and elegant than she did months ago in the awful film, “New Year’s Day” )
Joining Pfeiffer is young actress Chloe Grace Moretz as her rebellious wild child daughter Carolyn, Elizabeth’s disreputable, sleazy brother Roger ( Jonny Lee Miller ), Roger’s introverted and motherless young son, David ( Gully McGrath ), David’s often tipsy in-house shrink Dr. Julia Hoffman ( Helena Bonham Carter ), a grungy caretaker, Willie ( Jackie Earle Haley ), and the recently arrived nanny for David, Victoria ( Heathcote )… who bears a striking resemblance to Barnabas’ lost love Josette.
While the rest of the family is suspicious of their oddly behaved relative, Barnabas forms a quick alliance with Elizabeth to return the family home, business and reputation to it’s former glory and wealth. Unfortunately for Barnabas, the immortal Angelique has evolved with the times in Collinsport and is now a cornerstone of the community and the main fishing mogul in town.
Soon, Barnabas finds himself once again at odds with Angelique, who wants him to return her love for him or face his family’s destruction again. Adding to the intrigue, is Barnabas’ growing affection for Victoria, her beauty
… and as he calls them, “the most fertile birthing hips that (he’s) ever laid eyes upon”.
Depp is simply marvelous as Barnabas, in a role rife with impeccable wit and comic timing. His stodgy befuddlement to the funky loopiness of the 1970’s surroundings he encounters is priceless to watch; whether it’s his first encounter with a massive illuminated McDonalds sign, the mystery of a blood red lava lamp, or the absurdity of a Troll doll.
A musical montage of Barnabas simply trying to find a suitable place to sleep prior to getting a comfortable coffin is full of deliciously funny sight gags. The script is full of sharp, witty dialogue and one liners, mostly delivered by Depp, that makes this film a comedic treat without lapsing into a groaning parody of the source material.
Depp is equally supported by delightful performances by Pfeiffer, Bonham-Carter and Moretz ( Hugo, Kick-Ass ) a maturing actress who’s dead pan delivery in her scenes with Depp and family channels every annoyed adolescent who has felt, if only briefly, “how did I get born into this group of losers?”
Eva Green is devilishly evil and stunningly beautiful as Angelique. She knows exactly what she wants and won’t allow anything or anyone get in the way to stop her from possessing it. Green embraces Angelique’s greed for corporate power, vengeance and her lust for Barnabas with an all out gusto that truly embodies the “I Am Woman” feminist spirit that so typified the era in which this film is set. Indeed, one of the marvelous ongoing threads within this film is Burton’s embrace of 1970’s pop-culture to set the tone of the narrative.
A movie theater within Collinsport featuring “Superfly”, as well as that film’s title song; plus an amalgam of cheesy Carpenters tunes and an appearance by the one and only Alice Cooper performing gives this film a wonderfully funky soundtrack and time capsule quality that may be puzzling to Barnabas, but it’s also a giddy nostalgic treat for movie audiences who remember the time first-hand.
Burton’s trademark flair for gothic art direction is also in wonderful abundance giving the film a truly brooding look befitting the storyline, as well as the original source material.
The director even provides the requisite, but always welcome, cameo appearance by several of the original TV series cast, including the late Jonathan Frid, who played the original Barnabas Collins. No spoilers here, but a justified heads-up for those who recall these now older actors from their past prime. Watch for them at the early portion the grand party at the Manor; because if you truly blink, you’ll miss the moment.
The film’s final act is filled with action, but it also seems a bit hurried and unfinished in some ways. A surprising revelation involving young Carolyn during Barnabas final face off with Angelique seems to come out of nowhere and left unexplained. However, despite this minor misstep, the finale is thrilling and satisfying enough to not ruin the overall experience.
Dark Shadows is Tim Burton and Johnny Depp at the top of their collaborative game once again. The film provides plenty of nostalgic fun for fans of the original TV series; while at the same time, bringing some well crafted comedic bite to this once dark, though entertaining, melodramatic afternoon TV oddity.
This weekend, make sure you go and bask heavily in Dark Shadows.
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