If there’s anything remotely goth-flavored in our culture untouched by Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, just wait a while; they’ll get around to it. Their latest collaboration, Dark Shadows, checks off “vampire” on the Burton/Depp wish list, a mild disappointment for those of us who’d hoped to see them remaking London After Midnight someday. (People remake well-loved films all the time; why not remake one few living souls have ever seen?) Following the lead of its forebear, the 1966-1971 supernatural soap opera, Dark Shadows doesn’t stop at bloodsuckers; it also throws in a witch and — rather randomly, I thought, and with little explanation — a werewolf. It is not the loosey-goosey fish-out-of-water farce the ads lead you to expect, though it’s far from serious — this may be the only live-action film I can recall in which a climactic explosion is a perky magenta.
Indeed, the look of Dark Shadows is intriguing; it’s the strangest-toned mainstream film out there right now. The stock appears slightly faded, as if it were aping both the left-out-in-the-sun graininess of ’70s cinema and the wretched video quality of the old show. It all coalesces into a uniquely anti-goth palette (and the opening credits, too, are bland enough to be part of the joke). Into the tackiness of 1972 comes Barnabas Collins (Depp), cursed to vampirehood by scorned witch Angelique (Eva Green) two hundred years ago. Freed from his coffin/prison, Barnabas shows up at Collinwood Manor, now occupied by a dysfunctional family headed by disdainful matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer).
Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) shoehorn as much melodrama and as many subplots into Dark Shadows as an hour and fifty-three minutes can hold. I suppose they’re trying to get as much of the original show into the movie as they can. Too young to have been one of the fabled kids running home from school to catch Dark Shadows on ABC, I prepared by popping in a DVD of nine “fan-favorite” episodes. After the first one, which introduced Jonathan Frid as Barnabas a year into the show’s run, my attention wandered elsewhere. You had to be there at the time, I guess. Frid played Barnabas as a melancholy romantic anti-hero, and Depp — looking like a cross between Count Orlok in Nosferatu and Conrad Veidt in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — follows suit; though the script makes the new Barnabas boggle his eyes at the trappings of 1972, Depp mostly stays away from easy laughs (he gets them anyway, largely with his sly inflections). He brings out the tragedy and anger of Barnabas’ situation.
Barnabas’ main antagonist is Angelique, who’s stayed around all these years to put the Collins fishing cannery out of business. I can’t quite decide if Eva Green’s scenery-gnashing performance is great or terrible or both, but whatever it is, it’s memorable. Aside from Green, this is one of the more eclectic casts in a Burton film in a while, the standout for me being Helena Bonham Carter as the live-in shrink for the troubled little David Collins. She seems to be channeling an unholy combo of Jacqueline Susann and Fran Lebowitz, with a pre-punk orange wig topping everything off. Burton certainly has found his muse.
Dark Shadows isn’t top-tier Burton, but he remains a classical director who trusts the image (some would say to the exclusion of anything else). It’s a pleasure to watch a film that isn’t over-edited, that basks in elegance. The blood, as in Burton’s Sleepy Hollow and Sweeney Todd, is bright Hammer red. The movie is more or less what you’d expect a Burton Dark Shadows to be, only with less emphasis on the purple-on-black color scheme and a lot of Super Sounds of the ’70s — including Alice Cooper as himself, performing two songs at a Collins mirrorball party — fighting Danny Elfman for dominance on the soundtrack. It turns into a bit of a mess towards the finish line, but at least it’s a fun mess, and if you’re looking to Tim Burton for narrative tidiness you must be thinking of another Tim Burton.