Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars
As a boy of 10 I would run home from school every afternoon to catch the gothic soap opera “Dark Shadows.” The story of 18th century vampire Barnabas Collins roaming the streets in modern times, the show aired on ABC for six seasons and was a great training ground for future television stars like Kate Jackson, Dana Elcar, Conrad Bain, Abe Vigoda and David Groh. Even Harvey Keitel appeared in a couple of episodes. The show was unusual for its time as it blended romance and comedy with a dash of horror. This week, director Tim Burton and his frequent star Johnny Depp add their own quirky touches to a film that pays perfect homage to the series that inspired it.
In the 1750s, young Barnabas Collins (Justin Tracy) and his family leave Liverpool and head for the new world. There his father begins building his fortune in the fishing business. Though the family is well off, his father reminds Barnabas of the most important thing…”family is the only real wealth.” Barnabas is in love with the beautiful Josette (Bella Heathcote). However he has also dabbled around with the mysterious Angelique (Green). When he refuses Angelique’s pleas to be hers only she flies into a rage. It seems Angelique is a witch. She punishes Barnabas’ rejection by turning him into a vampire and then turning the town on him. He is quickly spirited off to the woods, chained into a coffin and buried, condemned to spend the rest of his unnatural life in darkness.
1972. In the town of Collinsport, Maine a construction crew unearths an odd object. Opening it they are suddenly attacked. Soon they are all dead, their blood drained from their bodies. As the police investigate a bus carrying the fair Victoria (also Heathcote) arrives. She has come to apply for the nanny position being advertised for by Elizabeth Collins Stafford (Pfeiffer). Upon arrival at the family mansion, she is quickly introduced to the residents: handyman Willie (Jackie Earle Haley), Elizabeth’s brother, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), her daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Mortez), her nephew David (Gulliver McGrath) and the family psychiatrist, Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter). Finding his way to the mansion, Barnabas introduces himself and begins to assimilate himself back into the family. And a lost love to regain.
Cleverly written by Seth Grahame-Smith (author of the novel, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Killer”), “Dark Shadows” is a faithful homage to the television show I remember, with a little more humor thrown in to keep the youngsters interested. The cast does a fine job with their character development, with Depp leading the way. His Barnabas is youthful in appearance and, as the 1970s were a time of unusual mod fashion, he blends right in. He is puzzled by some of the achievements he has missed, as well as finding the most comfortable place to take a nap. He also doesn’t understand why 15-year old Carolyn isn’t married yet (surprised, he tells her that she must “put her child bearing hips to good use”). Here horror takes a backseat to comedy, but the jokes work a majority of the time. The special effects are tame, as is the on-screen violence. But the film is not out to shock, it’s out to enlighten. As Barnabas begins to stir things up, he soon learns that, like his father used to tell him, family IS important. And it is this lesson that Barnabas uses to educate the others.
The film is typically Burton, combining color and whimsy together to form a backdrop that keeps the film moving at a brisk pace. The cast has fun with their roles, as well as with the early 1970s backdrop. The musical score, by long time Burton collaborator Danny Elfman, lends the film a perfect accompaniment. Like Steven Spielberg and John Williams, the two artists seem to share similar visions when discussing film. As a tribute to a television classic, “Dark Shadows” is right on the mark.