Unless you are some kind of hardcore purist about the old horror soap opera on which this film is based, or are part of the anti-Burton-and-Depp contingent, pay no attention to the bad reviews that Dark Shadows has garnered from those quarters. I would also advise you not to pay too much attention to the film’s trailer, which does the movie no favors by promising—or perhaps threatening—something far sillier than the film itself delivers. Of course, it can—and will—be said that I am biased, that I am a Burton fan and even that I wrote a book on Burton. All these things are true—though I question whether writing a book about someone necessarily makes you predisposed in their favor—but it makes me no more biased than the folks attacking the film. We’re simply biased in different ways and for different reasons.
I would argue that there’s not a single negative review I couldn’t have predicted, and the irony is that they’re often from people complaining that Burton is predictable. Is it obviously a Tim Burton picture? Sure it is. That’s what I expect—and, in fact, what I want—from a Burton movie. I don’t go to a Burton film in the hope that it will be like Spielberg—anymore than I ever bought a Beatles album hoping it might sound more like the Stones. I expect a tone, a style and a certain set of interests or obsessions. Does Dark Shadows deliver these? Yes, it does—with some interesting additions.
Tim Burton fans—and those who simply admire truly personal filmmaking in the mainstream—will be glad to know that Dark Shadows marks a return to form after the disappointment of Alice in Wonderland (2010). Burton—and Depp, for that matter—are back in their groove with this loving spoof of the old Dan Curtis supernatural TV series. As with all good spoofs, this one is obviously made by folks who are nuts about the original. This is something that comes through in just about every scene. Depp wasn’t just being polite when he told the ailing Jonathan Frid (the original Barnabas, who showed up for a quick cameo) that if it hadn’t been for his iconic portrayal, this movie wouldn’t be happening.
Chances are that just about anyone seeing this film knows the gist of the story: Accidentally released after 196 years from his imprisonment in the grave, vampire Barnabas Collins (Depp) returns to his ancestral estate to become part of the family. That’s more or less in keeping with the TV show, but the film has a somewhat different idea in mind, namely Barnabas dealing with the startling differences between 1776 and 1972. (The first thing he encounters is the illuminated giant McDonald’s “M,” which he reasonably assumes is for Mephistopheles.) In this regard, the film attains its full Burtonesque quality—with Barnabas as the ultimate outsider who finds himself in the midst of a family of a different kind of outsiders.
It also allows the film to be a nostalgic excursion into Burton’s own childhood—with the music, fads and peculiarities of that era. Its closest antecedent is Edward Scissorhands (1990)—which isn’t dissimilar in plot either—but there the time period is intentionally nebulous. Here, it’s fixed, and Burton uses the era to good advantage. Some of it is used for comic effect—a secret room filled with Elizabeth Collins Stoddard’s (Michelle Pfeiffer) macrame projects, Barnabas encountering 1970s curios like troll dolls and lava lamps etc.—but the film wisely eschews a tone of outright mockery. Sure, Barnabas assesses Alice Cooper (hired to play at his “happening”) as the “ugliest woman I’ve ever seen,” but he’s shown as having a taste for the music itself. And so, for that matter, is Burton, who shows a surprising ability—maybe equal to Wes Anderson—to use pop music to good effect. His use of the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” is brilliant, while Alice Cooper’s “The Ballad of Dwight Fry” isn’t far behind—nor, for that matter, is (God save us) the Carpenters’ “Top of the World.”
If Burton’s use of music is surprising here, so is the film’s casually sexy nature. Burton has always been one of film’s least sexual directors. With the exception of Big Fish (2003), sex in Burton films tends to be either brushed aside, or treated in a somewhat embarassingly leering high-school manner. Here, it’s fairly straightforward, though—perhaps tellingly—Barnabas’ great love, Victoria (Australian soap actress Bella Heathcote), is outside the action.
Is the film perfect? No, and I wish it was. It tends to go astray toward the end, once it drops the culture-clash aspect. In fact, if you look at the song list—apart from the Killers’ soundalike cover of the Raspberries’ “Go All the Way” over the ending credits—you’ll notice that the pop songs (along with most the period references) are in the first two-thirds of the film. The last section is almost all plot, and up until the very final scene, the plot is the least interesting aspect of the film. It’s not bad—though there’s a clear sense of the screenplay having written itself into a corner and struggling to get out—but it’s certainly not in the same league as the rest of the movie. Still, I’d recommend it enthusiastically to Burton fans, if more cautiously to others. It’s the first mainstream release of the year that I’ll see a second time. Rated PG-13 for comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking.