I’m a big fan of Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, and vampires in general, so Dark Shadows is a film with my name on it. But you don’t need that perfect storm of tastes to fall for this funny pop confection. You don’t even have to be familiar with the 60’s afternoon soap opera the film is based on, but you do need to appreciate of the movie’s tongue-in cheek wit. Burton sets the story in the disco 70’s period of the television show, then tweaks the horror genre and bubblegum culture. Take one look at Depp as 200-year-old undead Barnabus Collins in the daylight – a visual homage to Michael Jackson complete with pasty-white skin, sunglasses, black fedora and giant umbrella – and you have a sense of the movie’s light-hearted, spoofy tone.
Dark Shadows may not have the emotional resonance of the best Burton-Depp work, Edward Scissorhands, but it is definitely a Tim Burton film. The early episodes, set in the 18th century, have the grey palette and feel of The Corpse Bride. Depp, Eva Green as Angelique, the spurned witch who curses him into vampiredom, and Bella Heathcote as Josette, his doomed, innocent love, look like stop-motion figures come to life.
In 1972, after Barnabus is freed from the coffin Angelique has buried him in for a couple of centures, he heads for the crumbling family mansion, Collinwood. No one steals a movie from Johnny Depp, but Michelle Pfeiffer comes close as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, the big-haired, mordant mistress of the place. Pfeiffer makes the character authoritative yet droll. What choice does Elizabeth have? She is surrounded by misfits, including Chloe Grace Moritz as her rebellious adolescent daughter and Helena Bonham-Carter as the ever-drunk, resident psychiatrist. Jonny Lee Miller doesn’t have much to do as Elizabeth’s brother. The weak link is Green, now a tycoon who has decimated the Collins fortune; as she so often is, Green appears beautiful but stiff.
There is a token romance. The 20th-century Angelique still lusts for Barnabus, who is smitten with Victoria, the governess who is Josette’s lookalike. But really the plot is just a scaffold supporting jokes and special effects. Barnabus is taken aback by strange new objects like an asphalt road and a Troll doll; Depp actually makes those predictable scenes work. (Like his novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith’s screenplay relies too heavily on the obvious collision of cultures.) The effects are beautiful though, from the diaphanous apparition of Josette’s ghost, to the carved wooden bannister that turns into a snake during the explosive final battle. And the soundtrack is a hoot, including bubbly songs like The Carpenters’ “Top of the World” and period touches like “Nights in White Satin.”
Even though Barnabus drains the blood from a bunch of peaceful hippies, there is nothing truly scary about Dark Shadows, which is – as it should be – a ghoulish joy. Of course, it helps to have a thing for vampires.