"What Strange Terrain is This?"
"Dark Shadows" has been a cult favorite for Baby-Boomers for 40 years (ouch!), long before it was fashionable to have vampires as fodder for young adults. The ABC soap opera ran for several seasons of afternoons replacing the standard plot-lines of cheating spouses and long-lost family secrets with long-buried family relatives and a full range of gothic ghoulery that plundered every horror story in the crypt-library, including vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein-ish monsters, time-travel, parallel dimensions and ghost stories.
It was a TV habit of mine when I was a kid, timed perfectly to be the after-school tonic for a parochial school education, an occult chaser for the catechism, all those crucifixes I was surrounded by during the day being used for other purposes. It was also a fixation for Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, Burton digging the horror genre and Depp grooving on the character of Barnabas Collins (played by the late—or is he?—Jonathan Frid, who puts in a very brief cameo here along with a couple of other cast-mates), the reluctant vampire who pursued hearts, rather than the blood that pumped through them. The result of their dual obsessions is this version of Dark Shadows, produced by Depp, directed by Burton.
"It is said that blood is thicker than water," narrates Barnabas Collins (Depp), over the strains of Robert Colbert's alto flute-through-echoplex composition "The Secret Room" from the original series. "It binds us, confines us, curses us." For a moment, things are fairly serious as the 18th century story of young Collins scion Barnabas is unearthed, with his spurning of the witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) and her subsequent dark revenge, killing the Collins elders, forcing the suicide of Barnabas' love Josette and turning him into an eternally cursed vampire. She subsequently sets the townsfolk on the monster who chain him into a coffin and bury him for all eternity.
|Depp and Burton get it right at the beginning: Barnabas learns his fate.|
On a parallel course, Maggie Evans (Bella Heathcote, the latest in a long line of Burton ingenues with thin necks topped by big heads with huge eyes and "big" hair) is on a train to Collinswood where she has applied for a job as a governess to young David Collins (Gulliver McGrath), who is having psychological issues from the disappearance of his mother at sea. Abruptly, she decides to change her name to Victoria Winters, indicating a past she wants to run away from, as The Moody Blues tune "Knights in White Satin" burbles over the soundtrack. Hey, Burton may be onto something here. The combining of '70's kitsch and some of its more mordant songs with the gothic mood of "Dark Shadows" works well, setting the tone of the series and the morbid fascination my generation had with it. Can "Don't Fear the Reaper" be far behind?
Then, things get a little weird. She's picked up by a VW van of hippies, and there's some stoned comedy about how they're so wasted, and Vicky is cool, man, and it's easy laughs and you wish it was more clever. It becomes apparent quickly that Burton will be playing this for laughs, which is fine (he always does to a certain extent), but the original material is already so melodramatic and over-the-top that the humor undercuts the effectiveness of what drama there is that ekes through the dramatic stares and the vamping poses. "Dark Shadows" was always "camp" entertainment in the broad sense, but to broaden it even further nullifies whatever chills and thrills can be drained from it. This is why Frid's performance on the show was such an anchor for it—he played it absolutely straight, and in fact, ramrod-stiff; you didn't make fun of Barnabas for fear of his wrath—or his breaking down in tears.
Depp's Barnabas is tortured, of course, but risibly so (in a performance that's a combination of Frid's formality, some Max Schreck thrown in, and a bit of Ed Wood cast-mate Martin Landau's incarnation of Bela Lugosi). And there's the "otherness" factor that Depp brings to so many of his roles, as if he's in a different movie from everybody else—he walks through it, and everybody reacts, usually comedically and derisively. In part, that's the point: it ties in with Burton's feelings growing up as being an outsider-geek, looking on at the rest of the world that he found strange, while it found him odd (and there's a mirroring through-line of humor throughout the film of Barnabas, out of his time, observing to some horror the eccentricities of 1970's life, that reflects it).*
But Collinwood's odd family doesn't bat an eye when Victoria shows up and doesn't react to the disrepair of the gothic Collinwood mansion or to David's assertion that he speaks to his dead mother, and she follows quite readily when the ghost of Josette appears floating down the hallways, whispering "He's coming..." Barnabas' arrival, in Victorian array and the palest of skin, and the oddest of manners only brings up temporary suspicions, but the matriarch of the house (Michelle Pfeiffer, who played Burton's Catwoman) readily accepts him as family, even after revealing his vampirism. The cast is uniformly fine, gamely being archly camp throughout, but the one performer who's best at it is Green, who clearly relishes the villainess role and has fun with it, taking it in some very odd, even poignant places.
It looks great. Burton's films always do, with a superb design sense and his knack for picking terrific, seemingly impossible angles to shoot from. But, like a lot of Burton films, it tends to fall apart in story, snatching hasty explanations and deus ex machina to get out of trouble, or to provide the director with a bizarre concept that may seem right in retrospective sub-context, but that comes out of nowhere, randomly and jarringly. One has to stop, back-track, only to realize that, no, this has never been mentioned before, and why now?
One suspects it's a whim, a passing "wouldn't-it-be-crazy-if" thought passed between Depp and Burton as they geek out, rocking in their corners, internal logic no longer mattering as much as a superficial entertaining notion. As such, Dark Shadows accomplished their goals. Yeah, it's entertaining, but highly insubstantial, a mere spirit of a movie.
Dark Shadows is a Rental.
The first Dark Shadows movie (left) and the original Barnabas Collins, Jonathan Frid
* This also sets up a series of sight-gags that are somewhat clever, as Barnabas never seems to be able to find appropriate sleeping arrangements at Collinwood.