REVIEW: Dark Shadows

I should preface this review by noting that I will not try to compare the film Dark Shadows to the television series of the same name.  I have seen only a handful of the show’s episodes, totaling perhaps 1% of all that were made, and I haven’t seen one in some 15 years.  So although I have vague memories of the characters and the basic mood of the show, I am not in the best position to compare it to the film.  Nor do I think such an enterprise would be worthwhile…given that the show constitutes some 600 hours of produced television, it would be impossible for the film to fairly distill the experience of the show into a two-hour running time.

I will say this:  I was not looking forward to reviewing this for you, and I attended a screening only out of obligation.  The previews I’d seen made Johnny Depp look like the foolish and foppish love child of Bela Lugosi and Max Schreck, and even worse, the whole endeavor seemed as though it would be played for broad comedy.  That’s not how I like my Gothics.  I like them played fairly straight, with castles and secret passages and family curses passed down through whispered lore.  And if they’re supernatural Gothics, again, I want that played straight.  Vampires shouldn’t be emo whiners, and ghosts should be properly spooky.  But the marketing team made it seem as though we were getting an outright farce.

Well, whoever that team is, they should be fired, because they had no idea how to market this movie.  Dark Shadows is a proper Gothic at heart.  There are plenty of laughs, but they’re more of the sly variety, and only rarely does Tim Burton actually subvert the mood by going too far.  If you’re a fan of opulent mansions and twisted love stories stretching back two centuries, then by all means, you should see Dark Shadows.

Some background detail, for those still deciding.  We first meet Maggie Ev – excuse me, Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote) – in the year 1972, as she is en route to Collinsport, Maine to take up a position as governess at the Collinwood estate.  Upon arrival, she finds the remains of the Collins family living in a crumbling mansion whose glory days have long since passed it by.  In a house built for a hundred, there are but four actual Collinses remaining:  matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her brother Roger, her daughter Carolyn, and Roger’s son David.  And they are aided by a staff consisting only of sullen caretaker Willie (Jackie Earle Haley) and old maid Mrs. Johnson.  Each member of the family is a basket-case of one sort or another.  Roger is a pervert, for example, and Carolyn is a rebel.  So it is a good thing in theory that Elizabeth also has a full-time psychiatrist living with the family, although Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) is such a lush that she really oughtn’t to be practicing therapy so much as receiving it.

The life of Collinwood is about to change in a huge way, however, and not just because Victoria has taken up residence.  Back at the beginning of the estate’s long life, when it was brand-new, it was inhabited by Joshua Collins, his wife Naomi, and their son Barnabas (Johnny Depp).  Joshua was the founder of the successful fishing business that had both made his fortune and built the nearby town to which he lent his name.  The future would have been bright indeed for the Collins family, if only Barnabas had fallen for a different woman.  Though loved by Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), and though certainly willing to bed her, Baranbas actually loves and wishes to wed Josette du Pres (Bella Heathcote again, and we all know what dual casting means in a film like this).  That might not be as much of a problem if the young lady Barnabas rejected had not been a witch possessed of fantastic powers.  Furious at being spurned, Angelique causes Josette to commit suicide by jumping off Widow’s Peak, a cliff on the Collinwood estate.  When Barnabas jumps after her, he learns upon surviving the fall that Angelique has cursed him to be a vampire for eternity.  That curse bites him even harder (I know, I’m sorry) when she convinces the townspeople of his new nature, and caused him to be buried in a box in the woods.

Why have I been talking so much about events of two centuries ago, you ask?  Well, because a construction crew unearths Barnabas Collins, who then returns home to Collinwood.  After seeing the deplorable state of his family’s existence and the meager struggle of the once-prosperous family business to stay afloat (sorry again), Barnabas decides to remain and rebuild while adapting himself to the strange ways of the twentieth century.  He might even start courting Victoria if he can ever figure out how.  There will be some problems along the way, though.  Leaving aside the fact that Josette’s ghost is floating around the mansion trying to gain Victoria’s help, and that his family and their staff have a hundred secrets which could scuttle his efforts, the Collins fishing business has stiff competition from its larger rival Angel Bay Seafood.  But I’m sure it means nothing that Angel Bay is run by a woman named Angie who bears an incredible resemblance to Eva Green…

The most obvious difference between the big-screen Dark Shadows and its small-screen namesake is money.  The television show was made on the cheap and rarely could afford more than one take of anything.  As a result, its successes were more a result of good presences than good acting, and it had to make up for sometimes-shabby trappings with a lot of atmosphere and a gripping story.  Since Tim Burton is able to command more money for one film than Dan Curtis got to run the whole five years of the show, though, we get a film that has it all.  There are real names in the cast, but they are all capable actors with great presences who know how to exaggerate a line delivery for effect without tipping into camp.  So we get both good presences and good acting.  We also have atmosphere and story fused into a setting that deserves and enriches them.  Though the plentiful CGI is pretty obvious, especially at the beginning, the physical sets of Collinwood are lavish in the extreme.  They really set the tone for the action that unfolds there.

Johnny Depp, of course, drives that action.  Though he may look like the cross-franchise vampiric love child I described earlier, Depp’s performance is very much his own (though there is a wonderful Nosferatu reference buried within the “restoring the mansion” montage).  He doesn’t play Barnabas Collins as a foppish dandy, but rather as a scrupulously courteous and well-mannered eighteenth-century gentleman who is deeply concerned with his family and his legacy…and who just happens to have been vampirized and dragged forward two centuries in time.  The fish-out-of-water jokes this occasions mostly work, believe it or not – there are only a few groaners like the “Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!” moments in the trailer.  The reason they work so well is that they are not usually made at the expense of Barnabas, or anyone else.  They’re simply there, as an expression of deep differences between the two temporal attitudes.  Had Depp mugged for the camera, even this would quickly grow tiresome – but it soon becomes apparent that Depp actually believes in Barnabas as a character, loves him, and wants to do right by an interpretation of him.  This is certainly not Jonathan Frid’s Barnabas.  But then, with the opulent settings and the extravagant budget, this isn’t exactly Dan Curtis’s Dark Shadows either.

In fact, it’s amazing how restrained the cast is overall.  Both Michelle Pfeiffer and Helena Bonham Carter could have used their roles as an opportunity to engage in the tedious eye-bugging, scenery-chewing mien of far too many of their cinematic forbears.  They don’t.  Chloe Grace Moretz and Gulliver McGrath, who play Carolyn and Danny respectively, could have adhered to time-honored precedent for kids in horror movies and annoyed the good will right out of the audience.  Instead, they’re actually pretty good.  Bella Heathcote could have been deadly dull; instead, she takes full advantage of her meaty role to humanize the whole movie.  Even Jackie Earle Haley’s best moments come when he elicits laughs from the audience by being the overly dull and uninterested help, instead of the over-the-top sidseshow distraction.  The only person who camps it up is Eva Green…and she earns every bit of that exaggeration.  Her Angelique is the only character that can convincingly hold the screen with Depp.  Had her performance been subtle to any degree, she would have ceased to be a credible threat against the magnetism of Barnabas.

Some people might not go to see Dark Shadows because they’re afraid the movie will bombard them with wacky humor.  Instead, as I said earlier, the humor is sly, and at many points more ironic than funny (though there are some good laugh lines too).  Burton’s instinct for how far he can take a joke or a moment before it wears on the audience only misfires a few times.  For every moment when Johnny Depp and Eva Green destroy a room by having sex all over it, there are three or four of different types that are excellently judged.  I dare you not to laugh out loud at what Barnabas takes to be the symbol of Mephistopoles.  I dare you not to smile as Angie walks past a series of portraits of the “other women” who have run Angel Bay.  (Both as a joke on the character, and a joke on the genre’s long-standing tradition of people not being able to see things that are right in front of their faces, it works.)  And there’s a moment that seems like the setup for a joke, when Victoria spots a sheet-clad figure outside her bedroom, that turns out to be more interesting – and chilling – than you might at first have assumed.

So give full credit to Seth Grahame-Smith for turning in a script that works.  Also, give full credit to Bruno Delbonnel for some absolutely gorgeous cinematography.  He takes full advantage of the Collinwood sets to give the movie a grand feel.  There’s no overly-dark “horror” atmosphere, nor is there a faded color palette…every shot is well lit, and the movie drips with color.  Even when the scenery is obviously CGI, as it is on the cliffs, the fakery somehow works to establish the mood.  (Less well-done is a set of werewolf effects, but you can’t have everything, I suppose.)  And everything is overlaid by a powerful Danny Elfman score and a well-chosen set of 70’s pop songs that set the tone of a Gothic out of its time.

That really is the key word here, by the way, the one that I feel I’ve already used too many times but can’t avoid using just once more.  This movie is Gothic in feel, and that’s exactly how it should be.  The monsters and ghosts are always presented as supernatural, and they exude the menace they need to when crossed.  Collinwood is full of secret passages and cupboards, and every character – even little Danny – has at least one secret of their own to match.  And it pays its homage to the tradition of its genre not just in tropes but in references; there are knowing cameos from Christopher Lee and from some of the original television cast (including, if you look closely enough, Jonathan Frid himself), and the film hews fairly true to the character backgrounds and the plotlines of the television series.  Like any proper Gothic, it even leaves the door open for a sequel by establishing several minor cliffhangers at the end.  In summation, Dark Shadows is an unexpectedly bright spot in the summer movie season.  Go see it, and take a friend.

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