This is a preview of my Sight & Sound review of Dark Shadows.
Created and produced by Dan Curtis (fully credited here) but fleshed out by a troupe of writers (shamefully overlooked), Dark Shadows was an odd phenomenon even by cult television standards. Debuting in 1966, the daily afternoon soap opera (on the pattern of non-exportable franchises like All My Children or As the World Turns) began as gothic romance in the manner of numberless paperback Jane Eyre knock-offs, but had a ratings surge when it switched over to gothic horror and unleashed a vampire among the regular cast. Originally a Dracula-like menace, Jonathan Frid’s Barnabas Collins became so popular that reasons had to be found for not staking him when his storyline concluded and so the character became the first tormented, self-hating, romantic vampire. If Anne Rice, Joss Whedon, Stephenie Meyer or True Blood mix vampires with soap opera, it’s because of Dark Shadows’ precedent.
Among the monster-kid baby-boomers who rushed home from school for each afternoon’s slice of chain-rattling was Tim Burton, who is yet again teamed with a pale-faced, peculiarly-coiffed Johnny Depp (attached also to a remake of Curtis’s other vampire franchise, The Night Stalker) on this big-screen reimagining of the soap as a camp-kitsch charade. Throughout Burton’s career, especially when Depp is on board, the auteur has shown an uncanny ability to co-opt pre-existing material, personalising everything as the story of an awkward goth outsider misunderstood by suburban norms who nevertheless finds love and acceptance with a slightly-too-bland everyday princess. Depp matches Frid’s fringe and has a Charles Addams pallor but models his body language on Max Schreck’s prissy-ratty Nosferatu – a touchstone vampire performance, already homaged by Klaus Kinski, Nicolas Cage and Willem Dafoe – and flashes talons with scissorhanded elegance. It’s a shame the script, co-written by mash-up hack Seth Grahame-Smith (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), gives this inherently amusing Barnabas so little worthwhile to do. Even combining two (arguably three) of the show’s characters into one with a backstory as a psychic escaped mental patient rejected by uncaring parents doesn’t make Bella Heathcote’s Maggie any less bland; all the heat (including a knockabout sex scene) is between Barnabas and arch-enemy Angelique (Eva Green, with a fabulous broken-eggshell look in extremis). Otherwise, the vampire tries to adjust to 1972 – an odd choice of setting, since Dark Shadows went off the air a year earlier – in Austin Powers-type man-out-of-time jokes accompanied by a Greatest Hits selection of soundtrack cuts (Curtis Mayfield, The Carpenters).
Dark Shadows carried on boardroom/bedroom plots even as vampires and werewolves abounded, but it’s hard to see why so much of this film is about the family fish-canning business. With five years of daily shows – plus feature spin-offs and two attempted TV revivals – Dark Shadows had time to highlight every member of the Collins household. Here, it’s hard to see why Michelle Pfeiffer’s matriarch (a role created by Joan Bennett) is even in the movie while Burton-friendly presences like Chloe Grace Moretz (who gets a good cimactic ‘reveal’) and Helena Bonham Carter (clutching a glass of whisky in every scene) have to claw for any attention. With inventive, fondly-detailed art direction (the Collins fireplace secret passage is a stunner) and moments of genre-homage glee (a magical duel patterned on the Price vs Karloff finale of Corman’s The Raven), this is studded with things to cherish but also stuck with sub-Dracula Dead and Loving It jokes (a routine built around the word ‘balls’ is an especial low-point). Like so many Burton-Depp films, this evokes great passions – a horror/soap hybrid should be about embracing extremes without shame – but is afraid to take them seriously and thus feels oddly domesticated and timid when it ought to be barking mad.