A long time ago my friends and I used to make recordings featuring characters we liked from our favorite TV shows and movies. We imitated our favorites and we loved those characters, but we put them in silly situations and had them say weird things because it made us laugh to imagine them in such bizarre scenarios. Yes, this is true and I am admitting it in public. I won't go into details. Trust me, you don't want to know. Anyway, I get where some of it is coming from Johnny and Tim. Yes, you guys are fans of the show. I know it. I can tell because we can smell our own. But instead of giving audiences an accurate take on DS, you took some of your goofball "imagine what would happen if so and so did this..." gags and threw them into the mix on the big screen. That was a bad move. You should have maintained the tone of the series throughout.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I was displeased by the comedic tone in the trailers and TV spots for Tim Burton and Johnny Depp’s big screen take on the cult classic, ‘Dark Shadows ‘. Is the movie as wacky as the commercials indicate? Well, yes and no. Those scenes are in the film, but they don’t make up the bulk of it. That fact doesn’t save it though. The movie is a bit of a hot mess.
Burton's DS starts out promisingly. The opening flashback is atmospheric and filled with sublime gothic visuals. Unfortunately, this all goes by so fast that one doesn’t really get a chance to fully enjoy it. Viewers glimpse the Barnabas/Josette/Angelique love triangle and see some of the tragic events play out, but the layers and nuances are obviously not present here due to time constraints. By squeezing the show’s 5-month long 1795 storyline into about 7 minutes, we miss the full impact of that tragic saga. Nevertheless, the opening is quite good. The flashback, subsequent moody title sequence, and Victoria Winters’ arrival at Collinwood ultimately wind up comprising the best portions of the film. Tellingly, these sequences are truest in tone to the classic series. If only Burton, Depp, and Seth Graham Smith had maintained that tone. Unfortunately, the picture takes a nosedive off Widow’s Hill after the opening. When Depp’s Barnabas Collins is released from his coffin in 1972, the film becomes a confused snarl of sight gags, fish-out-of-water-jokes, gothic horror, melodrama, sex jokes, action, and gallows humor. These disparate elements do not mesh well. Any sense of dread or melancholy is quickly undercut by inevitable tongue-in-cheek gags. In watching the film, I got the sense that WB was trying to appeal to every possible demographic by including everything including the kitchen sink. The original ‘Dark Shadows’ and its subsequent 1991 remake were serious in tone and genuine in their depictions of the Collins family’s assorted curses and tragedies. Alas, the somber ‘Dark Shadows’ mood only makes occasional cameo appearances here.
Equally troubling is the fact that Burton and friends cram FAR too much into one film. Major characters are introduced and never developed. One major plot/character twist comes absolutely out of nowhere during the film’s climax. Story ideas are introduced but never expanded upon as other plotlines struggle for screen time. For example, Barnabas’ shock upon encountering Josette-lookalike Victoria/Maggie in the present is never explored to its full potential. Depp’s Barnabas yearns for Victoria’s…er… “birthing hips,” but we never get that palpable sense of the long-lost love, nor do we get a hint of the twisted and tragic Josette obsession displayed by Jonathan Frid. The Angelique/Collins Family rival cannery and Collins “revival” plotline winds up taking center stage, but it isn’t a very interesting angle.
Visually, the film is stunning. Collinwood looks utterly and eerily grand. Widow’s Hill and the surrounding woods on the estate are beautifully realized. In typical Tim Burton fashion, it’s style over substance. Collinsport itself is nicely New England-y, but the presence of places like McDonad’s and Gulf gas pull us out of the “dark Brigadoon” of Collinsport. Part of what works in other versions of ‘Dark Shadows,’ and in other gothic horror stories for that matter, is the fact that such tales seem to exist in their own misty worlds. Introducing too many real-world elements into a gothic setting ruins the mood. Here, Burton uses some of these real-world elements for intended comedic effect but this happens at the expense of the gothic tone.
Danny Elfman’s score is fantastic, and appropriately ominous and grandiose. He draws inspiration from horror films for this score, and there are absolutely touches of Robert Cobert’s classic music present. In fact, Elfman uses one of Cobert’s pieces (“The Secret Room”) from the original series. I was quite surprised by the unfortunate and baffling lack of Cobert’s main ‘Dark Shadows’ theme, however. Odd.
Original cast members Kathryn Leigh Scott, David Selby, Lara Parker, and the late Jonathan Frid make cameos in the film. Unfortunately, their appearance lasts all of three seconds. :-( Christopher Lee is splendid in a small role as a surly Collinsport fisherman.
How does each character fare?
Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins - He tries to channel Frid’s Barnabas in his voice and mannerisms. Clearly, there is love there and I can appreciate that. I also appreciate the fact that he keeps Barnabas’ trademark look (hairstyle, ring, coat, cane - check). There’s no question that Depp is engaging in the role and that he has a fondness for Frid's portrayal. Depp definitely captures part of the eccentric, tortured, courtly, and dangerous essence of Barnabas, BUT he lacks the gravitas of Jonathan Frid or even Ben Cross. His reactions to modern-day life turn the character into something of a doleful clown (and we all know how much Tim Burton loves clowns). Depp’s Barnabas isn’t very bright either. He makes little effort to hide his vampirism and frequently drops references to his true age. I can’t help but feel it’s the little kid inside Depp playing Barnabas here. Depp and Burton take Barnabas out of context and have him react to “funny” situations which prevents us from ever taking the character seriously.
It’s easy to imagine how this played out:
Johnny: Remember how they never showed a TV at Collinwood? Wouldn’t it be funny if Barnabas saw a TV and totally freaked out? Heheh.
Tim: Ha! I always thought about that when I watched it. That’s hilarious! We have to do that!
Johnny: I wonder how he felt about those nasty little troll dolls...
Michelle Pfeiffer as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard – Pfeiffer does well in the role originated by screen legend Joan Bennett. She carries herself with the strength and class required of Liz. At times, I felt her tongue was firmly planted in her cheek, but overall she plays the role well. I’d say she fared the best in terms of carryover from the TV show versions.
Eva Green as Angelique – She is sadly one-dimensional here. As vile as Angelique could be in the original series, she was a complex character with some serious motivation. True, she had a psychotic obsession with Barnabas and this desire propelled her actions, but the character had many layers. As much as we loved to hate her, and as wicked as she was, we could understand what drove her. She wasn’t a Saturday morning cartoon villain like she is in this film. Eva Green has fun with the role but is very one-note in her portrayal.
Bella Heathcote puts in a nice turn as Maggie Evans/Victoria Winters. She is genuine and plays the part quite well. I’m not sure how I feel about merging both characters. I think it was a bit of fan service to please those who wanted one or the other in the film. Heathcote does a good job and her waifish Vicki/Maggie has an interesting quirky quality.
Jonny Lee Miller is wasted as Roger Collins. We get a couple of brief scenes where Roger displays unsavory behavior, but the character is never developed. Barnabas’ eventual reaction to Roger seems extreme because we spend spend very little time with the character. Based on Miller’s facial expression in the cast photo, I was hoping for a Louis Edmonds-style pretentious, stuffy Roger Collins.
Helena Bonham Carter was not effective as Julia Hoffman. I’d venture to say she was quite awful. The changes to the character are unfortunate and serve to make Julia very unlikable here. Unlike Depp who, despite my misgivings about several of his choices, plays his role with affection for the original, I felt that HBC was making fun of the Julia character and of the material with which she was working. And whose idiotic idea was it to have Dr. Hoffman give Barnabas a hummer? Classy.
Chloe Moretz, who is wonderful in several other films, overplays the angsty teenager Carolyn Stoddard. She is disaffected. We get it. It’s tiresome. Yes, Carolyn should have issues, but this was a very one-note take on the character. **SPOILER** During the film’s climax, we find out she’s a werewolf. This comes out of left field and is absolutely unnecessary to the plot of the film. It’s as if they said, “Dark Shadows had werewolves too. We need one of those. Ah, let’s just make Carolyn a werewolf!” Sigh. Dumb.
Gulliver McGrath is wasted as David Collins. I saw much potential in his portrayal, but he’s never given enough screen time to do anything substantial with the role. David Collins was a very disturbed little boy in the early days of the show. The supernatural was drawn to him and vice versa. We get some hints of what Gulliver could have done with the part but this never goes anywhere.
Jackie Earle Haley as Willie is quirky and amusing, but viewers shouldn’t go in expecting the delightfully complex Willie of John Karlen. Gone is the utter sleaze who becomes humbled by something far darker and more wicked than he. That said, his isn't the "Zoinks Scoob!" portrayal of Jim Fyfe either. It’s an interesting take but, like much in this film, the character lacks any depth or substance.
Ray Shirley as Mrs. Johnson - Used entirely for "senior citizen comic relief" comic relief in the film, this character is Mrs. Johnson in name and career only.
There ARE snatches of actual ‘Dark Shadows’ here and there. In between the tangle of characters, lame gags, and multiple half-conceived ideas, there is some genuine DS in the mix. Unfortunately, these moments are fleeting at best and simply made me yearn for what could have been. In the end, this plays more like a messy genre mishmash. I sense they were trying to appeal to every demographic and taste by infusing everything they could into the film, which resulted in an unsatisfying and haphazard amalgam of disparate elements.
As a fan, I’m not angry. I WAS angry when I saw the trailers and the TV spots but, after watching the film itself, I just feel disappointed. I honestly believe, to some extent, that Depp and Burton made this film out of love for the source material but I think several other factors came into play along the way. (1) I suspect they feared that a modern audience wouldn’t accept an accurate (albeit big-budget) version of ‘Dark Shadows.’ Seth Graham-Smith has said in interviews that most modern audiences “won’t sit through a movie like that” and that they didn’t want to make “a two hour chamber piece.” To this I say, "COWARDS!" 'The Woman in Black' was a hit and stayed true to its gothic roots. Hammer rules, Graham-Smith drools. (2) It seems Burton is obsessed with “Burtonizing” everything he touches to the point of self-parody. Wake up and smell the coffin Tim! (3) See my comment at the beginning about the funny recordings my friends and I used to make. I think Burton and Depp did some of that here too by putting their own little in-jokes into the mix.
Ultimately, I’m glad the film has brought attention to ‘Dark Shadows.’ Depp and Burton always mention their fondness for the show and for Jonathan Frid in interviews. They don’t have to do that and I think it’s cool that they do. I just wish they had stayed true to the tone of the source material if they wanted to do something called ‘Dark Shadows.’
~~ Some comments on plotline differences between the film and previous versions of DS ~~
* In the original show and in the ’91 revival Barnabas is, for all intents and purposes, dead in his coffin during the day. He cannot walk around during the daytime and must return to his coffin at dawn lest he be destroyed by the sun’s rays.
* Maggie Evans and Victoria Winters are two separate characters in the classic show. Maggie is the one who looks like Josette. Vicki is the governess. Maggie eventually takes over the governess job when Victoria leaves.
* In the classic series, it is Barnabas’ father Joshua Collins and servant Ben Stokes who lock Barnabas in his coffin. Barnabas is prevented from breaking out of the coffin by a cross which Joshua asks Ben to affix to the inside lid of the casket. The coffin is locked away a secret room in the Collins mausoleum until Willie finds it almost two centuries later.
* Werewolves cannot not speak while in werewolf form in the classic show. They are feral and kill their victims on sight. They cannot transform at will and change during the full moon (and on the nights before and after the night of the full moon).
* In this film, an entranced Josette throws herself from Widow’s Hill because of Angelique’s spell. After that, Barnabas becomes a vampire. In the original iteration, Angelique has already turned Barnabas into a vampire well before Josette’s demise. The undead Barnabas intends to turn his beloved Josette into his vampire bride. Eventually, when Angelique lures Josette to Widow’s Hill, she shows her a terrible vision of what she will become after Barnabas’ final attack. Barnabas arrives soon thereafter and a horrified Josette voluntarily throws herself from Widow’s Hill.
* David's mother Laura seems to be some sort of banshee in this film. (based on how she deals with Angelique at the end). In the classic show she is a phoenix, who rises from the flames every century. In the film, Julia mentions something about David's belief that his mother is a "cyclical entity" or something, which led me to believe they were going to bring in the phoenix idea but apparently they went with the ghost/banshee thing for Laura.
* When Barnabas is released from his coffin in the 20th century, he introduces himself as a cousin from England and does NOT reveal his vampirism to the family. Indeed, few who learn his secret live to tell the tale.
*Julia genuinely tries to cure Barnabas in the original series and in the '91 version. She certainly doesn't ever try to make herself immortal with Barnabas' blood.