If you’ve been following the discussions here on CliqueClack Flicks, you’ll already be familiar with our concerns that Tim Burton has ruined Dark Shadows, and that a revealing listen of Danny Elfman’s score tells a totally different story than the wretched trailer did. So it was with cautious optimism that I went into the screening of the movie, prepared to be totally disappointed but hoping beyond hope that my gut reaction about the trailer was correct … and I am so happy to report that Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Seth Grahame-Smith (the writer whose Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter just got an uptick in my interest meter) are treating the original source material with the proper reverence while putting their own spins on the material.
The film starts out magnificently as it reveals the origins of Barnabas Collins: his childhood in Liverpool, the Collins family relocating to Maine, starting a fishery, and building Collinwood (and Collinsport in the process). Young Barnabas’ dalliance with the servant Angelique (Eva Green) leads to no good once he’s become smitten with the beautiful Josette (Bella Heathcoate). Barnabas doesn’t know that Angelique dabbles in the black arts, and you just don’t spurn the advances of a witch. Angelique casts a spell on Josette to drive her off the edge of Widow’s Hill, and in his despair Barnabas leaps to the rocks below to be with his beloved through eternity … except Angelique has also cursed him to live forever as a vampire, then she organizes the townspeople into an angry mob and they bury him alive for his dastardly crimes. Two hundred years later, he’s inadvertently awakened and must acclimate himself into the “modern” world of 1972 as well as ingratiate himself back into the Collins family. Seeing the ruin of his beloved home and business, Barnabas reveals himself to Elizabeth Collins-Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) and they set out to restore the family name in the town that bears their name. There’s just one problem — Angelique is still very much alive and kicking and has been doing all she can to ruin the Collins family over the centuries. When Barnabas meets the beautiful Victoria Winters (Heathcoate again) and sees the reincarnation of Josette, the unending romantic triangle is set into motion once again.
Most of this plot is taken directly from the original soap opera (minus the fishing business), and anyone who knows the show will be happy that they’ve managed to stick to the basics. There’s also young David Collins and his obsession with ghosts (here, it’s the ghost of his mother instead of the young Collins girl of the series), and the dubious psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) who is supposed to be helping David, but gets drawn into aiding Barnabas finding a cure for his affliction. Now, despite what the trailer portrayed, Dark Shadows is definitely not a full-on, slapstick comedy. Burton keeps the mood appropriately dramatic and gloomy, with a few macabre touches of humor (although while I smiled and chuckled quietly a few time, some audience members were guffawing loudly) mostly in how Barnabas deals with his new world. The movie did lose a couple of points from me because of some of the more overtly comic moments, such as the ridiculous “sex” scene between Barnabas and Angelique, and a not-so-subtle sexual action performed by Dr. Hoffman. Hardcore fans of the show will be thrilled to get a quick glimpse of original cast members David Selby, Kathryn Leigh Scott, Lara Parker, and the late, great Jonathan Frid as guests at the Collins family ball. Fans may also be perplexed by a couple of minor changes to the original story as Maggie Evans and Victoria Winters as actually one and the same person in the movie, and a plot twist involving young Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz) comes totally out of left field, but none of these things were enough to ruin the experience for me (and I’m old enough to have watched the show when it originally aired on ABC).
Johnny Depp gives a terrific performance as Barnabas, keeping the ageless vampire properly solemn and extremely polite (I love that he always addresses the women as “madame”), but manages to relay the comedic moments more with just a facial expression rather than doing something physical to make sure we get the laugh. Michelle Pfeiffer is ageless and beautiful, making her Elizabeth properly matriarchal even while the estate and the business are falling apart around her (with no help from her brother Roger, played by Johnny Lee Miller). Bella Heathcoate brings a lovely fragility to Josette and Maggie/Victoria in the early part of the film, and grows stronger as she falls for Barnabas and then discovers his secret. (And no one ever questions his appearance, except to say that he’s from England!) If I was disappointed with anyone in the film, it’s Helena Bonham-Carter — not necessarily her, but the way her character is written. In the original series, Dr. Hoffman was almost always on the edge of hysteria and whether she was written that way or was just due to Grayson Hall‘s performance, I don’t know but the character was always one of my favorites. Here, they’ve toned her down quite a bit and just made her a functioning (barely) drunk who’s too sloshed to become hysterical about anything. (And it will be interesting to see what they do with the character should there be a sequel.) The film has some gorgeous production design, costumes and makeup but nothing that’s too over-the-top in typical Burton style, and the violent attacks perpetrated by Barnabas on the locals are more implied than explicit but I still wouldn’t recommend the movie for younger children.
Overall, I was very pleased with the final results and all of my fears from seeing the trailer have been dispelled. It’s really going to be up to the fans of the series now to support the movie, give it a chance, understanding that this is not a complete reworking of the classic show but it also doesn’t trash the memory of it either. Newcomers to the story will probably be easier to please (all of my companions at the screening were unfamiliar with the original, but still enjoyed the movie), but this veteran viewer was more than happy with Burton’s vision and I hope we’ll get to see more.