Any big fan who is obsessed with Tim Burton is going to love the heck out of the fun retro vibe he imbues in his new take on “Dark Shadows.” Based on the cult soap opera that aired in the late 60s and early 70s the story concerns the relatives of one Barnabas Collins. He's British man who settled with his family as a boy in New England in the 1700s and established a well-run fishing company. He was cursed by a witch and became a vampire and was buried “alive” for centuries. And now he’s been released in the 1970s. he meets up with his descendants, who think he’s a strange (which he is since he’s played by Johnny Depp) relative who’s just come over from England on a boat. Think “Hocus Pocus” meets “The Addams Family.” The film is part fish-out-of-water tale, part gothic horror, and part melodrama. I have no idea whether it bares any resemblance to the original series (I’m going to assume it doesn’t really) but fans of Burton’s trademark gothic and quirky style are sure to eat this up.
During the coolly retro-feeling opening title sequence, a young woman named Victoria (Bella Heathcote) travels on a train to Collinswood, where she intends to respond to a newspaper ad for a governess. There she meets the strange Collins family. There is matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her sarcastic teenage daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz). Then there’s Elizabeth’s brother Roger (Johnny Lee Miller) and his young son David (Gulliver McGrath). Elizabeth has hired a live-in psychiatrist named Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) to look after David’s supposed mental health – he supposedly sees ghosts. Willie Loomis is the manor’s strange caretaker, played by Jackie Earle Haley. There’s also an old cleaning lady who’s “as useful as a bucket with a hold in the bottom.” There are a lot of characters, and if there’s any criticism I have, it’s that we don’t quite get enough time to know them all very well. In fact, Roger and his son’s storylines are practically non-existent and could have been excised altogether.
The real story here is between Barnabas’s adjustment to living in the 1970s as a vampire and his rivalry with the witch who cursed him Angelique Bouchard – played by the scene-stealing Eva Green. Angelique and Barnabas had a fling back in the 18th century, but he feel in love with Josette. In a jealous rage, Angelique murdered Barnabas’ parents, made Josette kill herself, and turned Barnabas into a vampire. Angelique now works as the head of a rival fishing company who has practically pushed the Collins’ family business into the ground. Angelique, learning of Barnabas’ escape from his eternal grave, plots to get revenge and win him back.
The story (with a screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith) feels appropriately melodramatic at parts, which makes sense since this is based on a daily soap opera. There are even - what I assume are - fun little hints at the TV series fans are sure to pick up on. Some might find the tone slightly off, but I found it the film mixed comedy and drama rather successfully. Most of the humor comes from Barnabas’ attempts to fit into this modern society. And some well-placed product placements serve some rather large laughs. Depp and Green play extremely well off each other, but Green really steals it as the plotting and overly campy Angelique – which culminates in an exciting and wonderfully over-the-top ending sequence. Though the detractors will find the film just collapses under its own weight - like most of Burton's films.
“Dark Shadows” has everything a Tim Burton fan could want. It’s weird and creepy and funny. It features top notch set design and costumes and makeup. Another good, but subtle Danny Elfman score helps the proceedings. I’m not sure how diehard “Dark Shadows” fans will feel about it, but it’s certainly a really fun and enjoyable experience for newbies like me. GRADE: A-