I really liked Dark Shadows. Of course, the film comes with the proviso that it’s probably nothing at all like anybody is expecting, at least based on the trailers. While there are elements of a comedy about a vampire lost in time, Tim Burton is far too busy constructing an elaborate spoof of a gothic melodrama to every really develop that thread. Instead, it’s a movie that seems wry and self-aware more than it is side-splittingly hilarious, an old-fashioned homage to the melodramatic horrors of old rather than a compelling story in its own right. I don’t think anybody could argue that this is truly “classic” Burton, measured against Ed Wood or Batman Returns. However, it is a director who seems to be having a great deal of fun playing with some rather esoteric toys.
Of course, Dark shadows is an adaptation of the classic sixties soap opera about the Collins family – it was sort of like Genera Hospital if General Hospital featured vampires, ghosts and werewolves embroiled in a generational history of a New England family. So it isn’t really that similar, to be entirely honest. However, Burton seems to be using that familiar brand to play with the sort of crazy over-the-top gothic melodramatic nonsense one might imagine from a soap opera, but with a healthy dose of the supernatural to boot.
The plotting is very clearly structured in homage to those trashy soap operas. It seems that barely a scene goes by without somebody revealing an ominous secret, or Barnabus stumbling across some evil that has taken root in his family home. Sometimes it’s the revelation that a previously trustworthy character is planning to steal from their next of kin, or that somebody’s motives for assisting Barnabus aren’t entirely altruistic. At one point, almost completely out of the blue (save one line of foreshadowing dialogue towards the start of the film), it’s the revelation that there’s a werewolf in their midst. “Yeah,” the person confesses, “I’m a werewolf, so what? Can we not make a big deal about it?”
The movie wears its ridiculousness on its sleeve. Trapped alone, Barnabus begins monologuing, referring to himself in the second person. The structure is gleefully ridiculous, as plot points are picked up, played with for a few minutes, and then resolved. In a delightful bit of seventies pseudo-science, one of the family proposes to cure Barnabus of his vampirism using blood transfusion. Don’t ask where they get the copious amounts of human blood necessary to run the operation, or why a psychiatrist is perfectly trained to do that sort of thing. It would spoil the joke. Towards the end, as the evil villainess Angelique Bouchard reveals the ridiculous and improbably ways she has laid the Collins family low, matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard seems more confused than upset. Very little of these revelations are set up, like so many soap opera twists.
Hell, there’s even a “special guest musical performance” very much in the style of television stunt-casting, which would seem like the musician promoting his album… were the film actually released in 1972. Burton even throws in a perfectly trashy vampire love scene, injecting more energy into one ridiculous sequence than the entirety of Breaking Dawn, Part I. Still, the film’s style is more of an ironic smirk than a beaming grin. Given the massive commercial success of the bland Alice in Wonderland, it feels like Burton indulging his more esoteric sense of humour.
It isn’t just the script that’s in on the joke. Johnny Depp is very much in scenery-chewing mode here. It seems like we’ll never see the same nuance and depth he brought to roles like Donnie Brasco or Ed Wood, but his approach works here. It’s very melodramatic, very over-the-top, with every line delivered with the utmost ridiculous sincerity. His timing is impeccable, and his style faultless. Even his silent reactions are perfectly overstated. It’s not a performance with an abundance of nuance, that’s entirely the point – it’s all heightened melodrama, and Depp is at the very peak.
Depp is perfectly matched by Eva Green as the vamp witch Angelique. Green has a sultry style all her own, and chews on the scenery with impunity. Indeed, it almost reminds me of Jack Nicholson’s villainous turn in Burton’s Batman, complete with lost of evil smiling and a gloriously theatrical style. And the rest of the cast get in on the joke too. Special mention must be made of Helena Bonham Carter as Dr. Julia Hoffman and Jackie Earle Haley as Willie Loomis. Carter is a wonderful actress, and she’s perfectly used as the self-medicating psychiatrist coping with the stress of a job… that doesn’t seem very stressful at all. Haley is an underrated performer who wonderfully underplays the role, simply going along with everything that’s happening. His reactions are quite priceless.
The cast make their dramatic pronouncements in the most garish manner possible. There are lots of sudden jerks and movements as the actors deliver shocking revelations in a manner clearly designed to wring every ounce of dramatic tension from the moment – it is very much in the spirit of parody, as they emulate the sort of worst excesses one might imagine from a daytime television cast. Motivation speeches (“fight on, Barnabus!”) are delivered with stern conviction, and rhyming spells (“burn, baby, burn!”) are read like Shakespearean soliloquies.
Even Burton and his direction get in on the act. One of the best gags is the way that Burton repeatedly cuts away to the image of waves crashing against the rocks. It’s obviously an attempt to imitate a sixties television director trying to imitate an autuer, hoping to add some depth to a shallow and trashy plot by using visual metaphors, even if they don’t fit. The best use sees the camera cutting to the waves as Dr. Hoffman explains “doctor-patient confidentiality” to Barnabus, which is one of the film’s best visual gags.
More than that, though, Burton makes sure the camera is always moving, as if frantically trying to keep our attention – particularly during the sequence where Angelique discovers the Barnabus has woken up. It’s deliciously over-stated, like absolutely everything else, and that’s why it worked so well, at least to me. The period setting is overwhelming and garish – to the point where the soundtrack is constantly reminding us of the decade – but that’s entirely the joke. It wouldn’t work if Burton reigned himself in at all. One can spot the horror conventions he brings to the film – from pea soup to bleeding walls – all done with a measure of self-awareness.
Of course, there’s a catch. It is, pretty much, a one-note joke extended over two hours. That is, to be fair, a bit much and I can see the film easily wearing its welcome out, especially with viewers who might have been expecting something just a bit different, and just a bit more conventional. After all, sometimes it is quite difficult to tell the difference between a spoof of a bad film, and a bad film itself. I’d make an argument that Dark Shadows is an extremely earnest and affectionate parody, but I accept that the target market is probably quite small. I suspect that the film will be quite divisive on release, but I hope that opinion might come around, as has happened with a few earlier Burton films.
Still, there’s a lot of interest going on under the hood. The most obviously interesting facet of the film is Barnabus himself. As portrayed by Johnny Depp, we’re invited to imagine him as the hero of the story, struggling against a witch trying to destroy his family. However, the movie has a great deal of fun playing with that expectation. Surprisingly for a relatively straight-forward summer film, the movie is remarkably candid about his feeding habits. He slaughters a construction crew on waking, and then goes after a hippy commune, even after they are nice to him. Offered a glass of blood by Angelique, he’s initially hesitant, until she confirms, it’s not from anyone he knows. Because presumably that makes his habit okay.
Although the movie allows him to state his version of events, presenting an account where he is chased out of town by a mob and buried alive, struggling against the odds to keep his family afloat, the script seems to accept that this is a somewhat biased version of events. He confesses to feeding on some of the villagers later on, somewhat justifying their response to him. He’s also shown to be exceptionally manipulative and self-centred, with no real prospect for growth or development. He sleeps with Angelique knowing full well she is in love with him, while he just wants quick and easy sex. Even when he’s besotted with the family’s nanny, Barnabus is still something of a sex machine, hooking up with both his sworn enemy and Dr. Hoffman.
And even Hoffman sees through him more than anybody else in the film. “He’s a murderer!” she argues, before confessing that she didn’t go to the cops because he’s handsome and fascinating. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement – the only reason that she doesn’t inform the authorities is because he looks like Johnny Depp. Sure, Barnabus wants what is best for his family, and gets a tender moment or two with the family’s youngest son, but he’s also portrayed as a sinister hypocrite. Though he laments being used as a tool by Angelique, he has no hesitation about overwriting the free will of others. There’s some measure of irony in the fact that he uses it on people who are actually following his own code of honour. When a fisherman refuses to be bought and swears loyalty to Angelique, Barnabus doesn’t convince him to switch affiliations through reason and debate, but instead hypnotises him.
Indeed, Dark Shadows is filled with incredibly inadequate men, perhaps reflecting the time where it was set. This was, after all, the era where feminism was truly coming into its own. For better or worse, the most ambitious characters all seem to female, and the real heroes of the Collins household are the two women who head it – David’s deceased mother and Michelle Pfeiffer’s stern Elizabeth Collins Stoddard. Sure, Angelique is hardly the image of female empowerment, hopelessly devoted to Barnabus and fixated on his rejection, and Dr. Hoffman is revealed to be fixated on her physical appearance, but it’s interesting that so many of the men turn out to be completely useless. That arguably includes Barnabus himself, given how the final confrontation between Angelique and the family plays out.
At least the women are proactive and ambitious, while the men are petty and ineffectual. The surviving male Collins, the sniveling Roger, is shown to have a wandering eye, a lust for money and no interest in his son. Willie, the family’s loyal groundskeeper, is prone to drinking and sleeping and mumbling to himself. It’s interesting that that’s no reference to Elizabeth Collins Stoddard’s lover and Carolyn Stoddard’s father. He may have just died, but Carolyn seems to imply he simply ran out on them. However, neither Elizabeth or Carolyn ever fixate on him or discuss him.
While Depp might be the biggest name above the poster, it’s possible to argue that Barnabus isn’t the real hero of the piece. He provides the money necessary for the family to find its feet, but Elizabeth seems just as capable of managing the family and holding them together. While references are made to Barnabus’s “business acumen”, Elizabeth seems to take an active role in the restoration of the family industry, studying plans and appearing in photos (while Barnabus seems more preoccupied with restoring the house).
Hell, Barnabus isn’t even the traditional Burton leading character, although he might seem it. He is an outsider, and a stranger, but the movie doesn’t portray him as a misunderstood monster. If anything, his actions justify the label – brutally feeding and murdering those around him. Bella Heathcote’s Victoria Winters arguably fits the traditional Burton mold better, once her wonderfully soap-opera-esque mysterious past is revealed.
Victoria literally sees the world differently, and her cheesy flashbacks, set to an Alice Cooper song, are the most emotional moments in an otherwise light film. Like Bruce Wayne or Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood, she is the person who must learn to accept her strange habits and gifts as an inherent part of her identity – even if the world would brand her a freak. Barnabus has no such conflict – while he might want to be normal, he accepts and exploits his otherness with comfortable ease.
The fact that Victoria seems to fit the traditional Burton mold is just a lot less apparent than it might seem, because Heathcote doesn’t have a screen presence to match her distinguished co-stars, and because she’s a weird person arriving in a story populated with other weird characters. She doesn’t drive the plot, because she’s the least interesting person in the film, but Dark Shadows is a far more transformative experience for her than it is for Barnabus or any other character.
I suspect I’ll be in the minority on this one, but I liked Dark Shadows. I really did. I think that, if you accept it for what it is, it’s a fun little film, if not the most essential one.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | Angelique, art, Barnabas Collins, burton, Chloe Moretz, Dark Shadow, Dark Shadows, Ed Wood, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, eva green, film, helena bonham carter, jackie earle haley, johnny depp, Julia Hoffman, michelle pfeiffer, Movie, non-review review, review, tim burton