by Tony Dayoub
It's ironic that Tim Burton—whose expressionism-by-way-of-acid-tinged Batman was the forerunner of the modern superhero film—has a new film getting trounced in the box office by The Avengers, the ultimate example of the very kind of genre he helped to usher in at the start of his career. And that this film is Dark Shadows, not only a property with a fervent cult audience but probably the most satisfying effort from Burton in quite a long time. Based on the Gothic soap which ran on ABC from 1966-1971, Dark Shadows is the apotheosis of Burton's artistic concerns, perfectly fusing his love of all things dark and creepy with his off-kilter family dynamics in a way only glimpsed at in previous efforts like Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and most precisely (but all too briefly) in his 1984 short, Frankenweenie. In films like Sweeney Todd, Burton gets the sense of dark foreboding right, but misses that infectious feeling of benign wonder which his other movies are bursting with. And most of the rest of his oeuvre, though exuberant in its ability to astonish with imaginative production design and fanciful style, doesn't quite get that Hammer horror feel of movies like Sleepy Hollow. Perhaps Dark Shadows succeeds because, by Burton's own admission, it was a formative influence.
In Dark Shadows, Burton stays largely faithful to the original Dan Curtis melodrama, telescoping many of the essential plotlines of the show: the arrival of the mysterious Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote) to Collinsport; the return of Collins family ancestor Barnabas (Johnny Depp) as an undead vampire; his efforts to cure his vampirism with the help of psychiatrist Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter). In the case of Heathcote, Burton even amalgamates her character of Victoria with Maggie Evans, the female lead in the darker theatrical reboot House of Dark Shadows (1970). Throwaway in-jokes abound, confirming that Burton and screenwriters John August and Seth Grahame-Smith are well versed in the intrigue among the denizens of Collinwood manor. But more to the point, it's a good indicator that the humor they mine out of the show is one borne out of a love of the show, not a decision to patronize its fan base.
What makes the dissonance even more natural, and more funny, is that the insular Collins family themselves—matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), rebellious daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz), corrupt Roger (Jonny Lee Miller) and his creepy son David (Gulliver McGrath)—are all anachronisms themselves. It's as if the histrionic Collinses were transplanted whole cloth from the very soap opera Dark Shadows is based on. Despite the Collins living in a 20th-century world, their insistence on maintaining an aristocratic attitude in a world where class distinctions are becoming blurred make them as out of place in the '70s as Barnabas is. It's an aspect that immortal sorceress Angelique takes full advantage of, supplanting the Collins family as the the town's leading fishing magnate in her effort to extend the vengeance she's perpetuated on Barnabas after being spurned by her 200 years prior. So the fish-out-of-water/time-displacement humor is both multi-layered and intrinsic to the movie.
Green's performance as Angelique is one of the best reasons to see Dark Shadows. Her take on the enchantress as history's most persistent stalker suits the long-toothed beauty. However Green's wild-eyed leering here suggests a greater affinity with Jack Nicholson's Joker. I guess that makes Depp's Barnabas her literal bat-man. But actually, Depp evokes more of the tragic components of immortality one associates with Anne Rice's Lestat. This tension between the tragedy of vampirism—Barnabas's desire to end Angelique's curse of long-life—and the comedy of this stiff family elder making his way through a world of Alice Cooper and disco balls gives Dark Shadows the oddball charm that puts it in line with Burton's best films.
The most devout followers of Dark Shadows are like the more zealous fans of another genre show which ran contemporaneously, Star Trek. In supporting the more scientifically accurate '80s spinoff, The Next Generation, Trekkies sometimes ignored the appeal of its progenitor's built-in cheese factor. Dark Shadows "purists" prefer to recall the horror show's innovative supernatural elements and overlook the sillier, bodice-ripping dramatics that riddled the soap. But Dark Shadows sort of got the upscale treatment in a '90s TV remake: a short-lived series as dramatically inert as your typical middlebrow Miramax film.
Sadly, between the original soap's fans crying foul at Burton's approach (this despite the fact that Curtis himself never balked at modifying the show throughout and beyond its run) and the current backlash Burton continues to face from critics, it may be a long time before this new version of Dark Shadows is recognized for its sinister irreverence. Like Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers, Burton is one of those distinctive auteurs who seems to get punished by critics as tired or passé for treading the same territory over and over again despite the fact that he does it consistently well. Divorced of any preconceived notions, Dark Shadows is a considerable achievement in Burton's quest to perfectly distill his quirky aesthetic onto cinema screens.