In his newest collaboration with friend Johnny Depp, director Tim Burton has re-entered the world of cobwebs, camp and comedy with Dark Shadows, an adaptation of the late 60s/70s daytime soap opera.
With Dark Shadows, Burton returns to his roots – the world of funny-spooky strangeness, utilized in such films as Beetlejuice and Mars Attacks! Fresh off the hay fever nightmare that was 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, Burton finally gets back to the stuff that he’s good at – campy horror comedies. Dark Shadows does take itself seriously, but Burton makes sure his signature style shows.
While you can’t call this new Burton adaptation a comedy, per se, the director uses his sense of dark humor to his advantage, cultivating hearty laughs at the expense of the ultra-campy vibe.
The plot of the film follows Barnabas Collins (Depp), a pre-revolution era man cursed with the identity of a vampire after denying the love of a witch (Eva Green). Barnabas awakes 200 years in the future (1972 to be exact) to find his family’s once-prominent business in ruins and his current lineage in dire need. To make matters, the lovelorn witch, Angelique, who cursed and imprisoned him now runs the top business in the Collins-founded town of Collinsport.
Barnabas, now surrounded by his distant descendants (including Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Lee Miller and Chloë Grace Mortez), sets out to restore the family business to its former glory while dealing with Angelique’s malevolent meddling.
At its best, Dark Shadows gives Depp and company a chance to flex their comedic chops.
Being that Barnabas is a foreigner to the 20th century, many laughs come from Depp’s handling of the character. Barnabas, a fish out of water, enters the new world with a sense of wonder, awestruck by the strangeness of “paved roads,” “cars” and the mysterious “lava lamp.” More times than not, Barnabas mistakes these inventions to be nothing more than supernatural evils. Throwing in plenty of thees and thous, Depp (through the writing of Seth Grahame-Smith) brings Barnabas to prim-and-proper life, offering up one of his finest performances in a good while. Co-star Green shines whenever on-screen with Depp.
Jackie Earle Haley co-champions the film’s laughs, playing the Collins’ grungy groundskeeper Willy. Pfeiffer plays up the melodrama wonderfully, Miller sarcastically munches up his lines, and frequent Burton collaborator Helena Bonham Carter adds zest as the family’s resident doctor. Mortez also brings a few good chuckles as the angst-ridden Carolyn Collins, a teen stuck in the world of late 60s/ early 70s folk-rock.
Honestly, I was just as drawn in to the era as Carolyn.
Burton’s greatest strength on the film comes from his masterful staging. Collinwood Manor is a character in itself, with every crevice and corner reeking of depth and discovery. Burton creates the little seaside town of Collinsport, Maine to similar success. The art direction rises to the occasion – nothing off-beat in a Burton film.
Burton also chooses the perfect soundtrack for the film – a mix of era hits that create a strong atmosphere.
Downside from the stellar acting and staging, the film can struggle narratively.
Grahame-Smith’s screenplay (with story help from vet screenwriter John August) does its best to capture the essence of the source material, but the film can struggle with mixing linear drama with episodic humor. Both scenarios largely worked, but I wish the two could have been meshed together more aptly. Then again, there were times where the story points were completely off and the humor was devastatingly flat. Burton sets a perfect stage for the events, but at times, the story can’t quite rise to the occasion. While frustrating, the failures are thankfully seldom. The ending, more abrupt than necessary, also comes up short.
Despite some issues with the narrative, Dark Shadows rightly leans on its humor, cast and staging to create a largely enjoyable trip to the movies. Burton’s style shines, and longtime fans are in for a treat.