Johnny Depp is often looked on as the Tim Burton’s muse, the actor who has inspired many of his works and allowed himself to be moulded into the embodiment of Burton’s imaginings: Edward Scissorhands, his interpretation of the life and career of Ed Wood, his conception of Ichabod Crane and the Hatter from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Yet on this occasion the roles are reversed, and it is Depp, acting as producer and instigator, who has brought Burton to his own dream project, an update of the gothic American show Dark Shadows.
Created by Dan Curtis and running from 1966 to 1971, that show was unique among soap operas of that period in that the primary cast featured vampires, werewolves and ghosts; what is less commented upon is how wretchedly awful the original show was: plodding, dull, repetitive, and badly filmed on poorly lit plywood sets, with the caveat that the budget was so meagre it was a minor miracle even this much was achieved.
In this update, cursed by the spurned witch Angelique (Eva Green), Barnabas Collins (Depp) was transformed into a vampire and locked in a coffin for almost two centuries before his release in the year of 1972. Returning to his ancestral home, he allies himself with the current matriarch, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), who agrees to conceal his condition if he helps her revitalise the family business.
What is surprising is that this new version, with considerably inflated budget and production values, has maintained so much of the stilted pacing of the original; far from the supernatural comedy romp indicated by the trailers, this is actually a much more subdued affair, the blank stares and hideous costumes capturing the awfulness of the original, yet this pensive atmosphere allows the cast, including Jonny Lee Miller and the peerless Chloë Grace Moretz, time to develop a dysfunctional family dynamic over extended breakfast and dinner scenes in the first act, before virtually ignoring them in later scenes.
Unfortunately, with the emergence of Barnabas and his resumption of his feud with Angelique, now business rival to the Collins, many scenes degenerate into slapstick reminiscent of Death Becomes Her, with Green recreating the wild eyed crazy lady role she mastered in Cracks. While the end result is superior to Burton’s hideous Alice in Wonderland, the overly comedic scenes showcased in the trailer are incongruous, possibly in an attempt to appease studio bosses and test audiences.
The film is not commercial, and the concessions given to box office demands diminish the integrity of the whole, in these moments and in the ridiculously fake blood that Helena Bonham Carter’s psychiatrist infuses into Barnabas, presumably in order to maintain a rating suitable for children.
As with many Burton projects, the focus is on the setting rather than the story. While the extravagant Collins mansion is a consuming environment, the hyperattention to 1970s approaches parody: there are cinemas showing Superfly and Deliverance, a character reading Love Story and a performance of the Carpenter’s Top of the World, a song recorded in 1972 but not released as a single until late in 1973, as was Alice Cooper’s No More Mr Nice Guy, also featured here. Contrast this with the subtlety of Richard Kelly’s The Box, where the period was created by filming in the style of that decade, using wide lenses and extended takes rather than cluttering the screen with paraphernalia like a retro theme bar.
For all the dark magic and ancient curses, Dark Shadows was a soap opera, and remains so here, and despite the flaws this may still be Burton’s best film since Big Fish, almost a decade gone, but those wishing to truly enjoy a taste gothic Americana might be better to revisit either of Barry Sonnenfeld’s Addams Family films, or even Burton’s own Beetlejuice.