The 1970s are my favourite decade for pop culture in general, and I was on the downswing of a serious pseudo-nostalgic kick the other night in particular, so the new Tim Burton flick Dark Shadows had me from the premise alone.
The picture’s about an 18th-century New England blue-blood named Baranbas Collins (Johnny Depp) who rejects the amorous advances of the evil witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), and so she curses him to become a vampire, kills his lady love Josette duPres (Bella Heathcote), and locks him in a coffin for two centuries. Freed in the groovy year 1972, Baranbas sets out to rejoin his relatives at the family manor, restore their floundering fishery business, and reclaim their small town from Angelique’s spell. The main theme here is the importance of blood, in the familial sense, although the reluctant nosferatu Barnabas chugs the literal stuff, too.
Burton has had his share of misses over the years, most often when he strays into genres ill-suited to his trademark pop-goth aesthetic, so it’s good to see him return to his soft horror roots of late. Dark Shadows is a revamp of the 1966-1971 soap opera of the same (and rather redundant) name, which was one of Burton’s childhood favourites and remains a major inspiration to his career. The original show has garnered quite the cult following, although I’d never heard of the source material before I picked through the press for the movie, so I can’t offer much of a comparison here. Still, it’s clear that Dark Shadows puts its elegantly tawdry and romance-saturated sudser pedigree on full display.
The overall tone is melancholy infused with a healthy counterpoint of camp. The acting is bad, but in a good way, with the performances predicated on deliberate over-acting, and played tongue-in-cheek, but just the tip of the tongue. While Dark Shadows is a melodrama rather than a full-on comedy, the ample humour works well enough. This comic relief might not be to everyone’s taste, however, and a few of the jokes are rather strained. The movie takes its goofiest detours in the second act, where vampire-out-of-water gags abound. The film handles the main plot, the conflict between Baranbas and Angelique, with just the right amount of grim earnestness, with the exception of an amusing love scene.
The main strengths of Dark Shadows are its strong imagery and spooky atmosphere, which could carry the picture even without the fun performances. Danny Elfman makes great use of the creepier of ’70s rock hits. The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” and Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” are perfect here, although the Alice Cooper cameo is a bit lame. The German-expressionist sets and period-perfect costumes and production design are what you’d expect from the best of Burton’s oeuvre. Although hardly groundbreaking, the over-the-top set-pieces are faultless in their realization, and possess a certain charm all their own. The digital effects are fairly muted throughout the picture, but take centre stage in the third act. The only one that falls flat is the computer-animated werewolf, which stymies the otherwise passable climax.
The screenplay suffers from some serious structural defects. You can tell that this material would work better as a television serial, since the feature-length running time leaves no room for adequate characterizations of the numerous supporting players, and some of the subplots are left so choppy as to border on nonsense. The most fully-realized of these B-stories belongs to the Collins’ nanny Victoria Winters (also Bella Heathcote), and even then the film leaves her motivations murky. The other subplots are threadbare, and the secondary characters mere ciphers. I wish Burton and writer Seth Grahame-Smith hadn’t tried to cram so much into one film, since the ending hints at a sequel anyway.
Despite its flaws, Dark Shadows is an enjoyable experience.