“Dark Shadows” is a reboot of the long running, ever so slightly ludicrous daily TV supernatural horror soap opera which ran for five years from 1966 to 1971, managing to rack up 1,225 episodes. I had a vague awareness of “Dark Shadows” but had never seen any of it beyond the odd clip of low resolution studio recordings and sets so wobbly it would have made a “Blake’s 7” set designer blush.
The movie tells a streamlined and retooled version of the series’ initial plotlines, charting anti-hero Barnabas Collins’ fall from grace as his true love is taken from him and he is cursed to immortality as a vampire by a vengeful spurned lover. It then picks up nearly two hundred years later with his family’s business and ancestral seat having fallen to ruin. Returning to his homestead, immortal vampire Barnabas encounters his deeply dysfunctional descendants and sets about restoring the family’s fortunes. However, his would-be resurgent dynasty faces stiff competition from a very familiar rival…
I actually had a lot of fun watching this movie, far more than I was expecting. Given their recent patchy track record, I kept putting this latest collaboration between Johnny Depp and Tim Burton off for another time but I kind of wish I’d gotten to it sooner. It’s had a lot of flak for being unfocussed and lacking a strong plot and developed characters but when you look at it through the lens of its soap opera roots, it makes a weird kind of sense. The plots aren’t meant to be wrapped up in a neat two hour package and you certainly don’t want to reveal all the characters’ hidden depths and secrets in your first episode!
The production is rich in period gothic detail and even the cinematography is tweaked to mimic the schlocky vampire films of the seventies. Burton’s usual flair is toned down a little here and while it’s still very quirky, brightly coloured but darkly lit, it’s far more restrained than his usual overly-twiddley approach. Depp too seems more engaged than in recent roles, perhaps a side effect of his self-declared fandom of the original series and his Barnabas Collins is the unbeating heart of this comedy horror film. Eva Green plays Sabine, Barnabas’ nemesis, with a capricious kookiness; playful one minute and terrifying the next, giving the whole affair a joyously off-kilter feel and adding a much needed air of magic to the potentially dry “Dallas”-style business feuds.
The story of these feuding supernatural business tycoons and their centuries-old grudge match is, thankfully, played for laughs as well as scares and the movie manages the balancing act pretty well. For the most part, the jokes are consistently funny and the moments of horror are quite jarringly bloodthirsty without resorting to gore. Characters arrive and depart seemingly without purpose or warning, adding to the soap opera feel of things being set up to pay off much (much) further down the line.
A decent attempt to bring a horror comedy soap opera to the big screen, it was always going to be a tricky niche to exploit fully but Depp, Burton, Bonham Carter (of course), Green and Pfeiffer just about pull it off.