Upon seeing the trailer for Tim Burton's update Dark Shadows (2012), a friend of mine complained that she had no desire to see a fish out of water comedy made from the old soap opera. I think she called the idea "Encino Vampire." I can hardly improve on that, actually, and I share her sentiment. I have a lot of affection for Dark Shadows, and lord knows, I didn't want to see it "Burton-ized" if that meant losing the elements that made the show fun. It was a Gothic in the way only early seventies horror was gothic, even if it was on a soap opera budget. I approached the movie with more apprehension that usual.
Let me tell you, I don't think I've ever seen a movie so badly misrepresented by its trailer. Ever. Johnny Depp aside, this movie is recognizably descended from the soap opera. Oh, sure, there's some comedy, but it's not appended for the sake of comedy. It's organic. Mostly, it's a Gothic, from its baroque prelude detailing the history of the Collins family to the arrival of Victoria Winters at Collinwood in high October as The Moody Blues "Nights in White Satin" plays over the soundtrack. This is the least "Burton-ish" movie Tim Burton has ever made. Even regular collaborators Helena Bonham-Carter and Danny Elfman aren't their usual selves. They've all sublimated their own personae in the service of the tradition of Dark Shadows, so what you get is a soap opera, condensed into a two hour movie. As with most soap operas, you get extremes of performance and dialogue. How many soap opera villains have hissed "I'll destroy you for this!", and never mind the horror trappings of Dark Shadows. That's just regular soaps. Basically, this is a hot house in which passions are worn on the surface rather than sublimated. Mind you, this is better than a soap, because you have a better quality of actors, MUCH better production values, and you don't have the Scheherezade effect that soaps indulge in, in which they stretch plot points out over multiple episodes or even multiple seasons to keep the viewer hooked. Dark Shadows resolves its sundry plot threads in an economical hundred and thirteen minutes.
The story should be familiar to anyone who remembers the show. In the mid-1700s, the Collins family builds a fishing empire in Maine, becoming basically the area's landed gentry. The scion of the Collins family is Barnabas, for whom the future is bright. He has found his true love in Josette, he has been born to an aborning fishing empire, and he lives in the cavernous mansion, Collinwood, just below Widow's Peak. Unfortunately, he also has a spurned lover in Angelique, who will never relinquish him. Angelique turns to the dark arts to curse Barnabas to a life of undeath, while compelling his beloved Josette to throw herself from Widow's Peak into the crashing surf below. She then incites the locals against Barnabas, and he's entombed in an iron coffin, bound with chains, for two hundred years. He wakes up to a very different world. In 1972, the Collinses still hold sway in Collinwood, but the mansion is almost a ruin. The family business has dwindled to almost nothing in the face of competition from Angel Bay fisheries, which controls most of the Maine coast. The family is headed by Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, and it now consists of her wayward daughter, Carolyn, her no-account brother, Roger, and his son, David, who claims to see his dead mother. Into this mix comes Victoria Winters, a new governess for David. She's fleeing her own demons, but she has a way with David. When Barnabas returns, Victoria catches his eye. She is the spitting image of Josette. Unfortunately, Angelique is still around, too. She's the owner of Angel Bay, and she hasn't forgotten Barnabas. As Barnabas struggles to reassert the family fortunes, she opposes him at every turn. But she offers him a bargain: become her lover again, or be destroyed...
Like I said: it's the same damned story. Where this movie errs, and it's not a small error methinks, is that it shifts its point of view away from Victoria and onto Barnabas. Barnabas is a more effective character when he's a mystery. This movie lays all of its mysteries out up front, which is, I think, a structural flaw. Mind you, I understand that this is a vanity production on Johnny Depp's part: he's a producer in addition to being the film's biggest star, and it was Depp who brought the project to Burton rather than vice versa. A more self-effacing actor would have recognized the strength of the character he's chosen, but Depp isn't that kind of actor. The rest of the cast is uncommonly good. It hurts my brain to think of Michelle Pfeiffer playing a matriarch, but she's at that age, now, I guess, and if anyone is going to sub for Joan Bennett (or Jean Simmons), then Pfeiffer is the actress for the job. Chloe Moretz adds another interesting genre role to her already impressive resume. She seems to have supplanted the Fanning Sisters as the go-to choice for preternaturally gifted young actresses. Her performance here is perhaps a bit mannered, but that's the part she's given. Johnny Lee Miller is a non-entity in the movie, while Jackie Earle Haley as Willy, the groundskeeper, is pretty much an afterthought. Bella Heathcote is also surprisingly nondescript as Victoria Winters. Surprising because it's a role that's essentially a romantic lead. Or not. Where Heathcote is pushed to the margins of the film, Depp gets more than his equal in Eva Green, who rampages through the film as Angelique. Whether it's having punishing rough sex with Barnabas or inciting riots against the Collinses, Angelique is the prime mover of the film's plot and Green plays her as a caustic mix of sexy and crazy. She has the light of madness in her huge eyes.
Visually, Dark Shadows is traditional Gothic rather than Burton Goth. Collinwood itself is a character in the film, and it's of a piece with the crumbling manor from the original House of Dark Shadows spin-off movie. The movie's opening scenes are stock horror historical stuff, but the initial introduction of Victoria as she travels to Collinsport on a train through an autumnal landscape is surprisingly beautiful. I'm also partial to the town of Collinsport. It looks like the Maine I remember from visiting there as a kid (during the 1970s, it so happens). Barnabas Collins himself seems more in line with a Burtonesque sensibility, with his pallor and weird haircut, but he's really the only thing in the movie that screams artifice. I can live with that, really, and I don't mind at least one element of the film tying it to Sweeny Todd or Sleepy Hollow (which are the comparable films from Burton's filmography, as opposed to, say, Beetlejuice).
I mostly enjoyed Dark Shadows, much to my own surprise. I haven't liked most of Burton's recent films, in which he's imposed his own anima over beloved source texts. He doesn't do that here, and the movie is better for it. Given that Burton's films rarely add up as integrated works of art, it's surprising that this film is as coherent as it is. I'm not complaining. There's a surprising ferocity in this film, too. It's not afraid to let blood, which was also a surprise. The horror elements are stronger than I would have guessed based on the trailer. Hell, I even liked the fish out of water stuff, and the gentle parody of 1972 cultural mores. When Barnabas seeks advice from a band of hippies, the movie is having fun at the past's expense. When Barnabas kills them all, the movie is looking forward. It's a nice juxtaposition. I'm a little uncomfortable with the Alice Cooper concert mid-movie, but the event does give the filmmakers a means to insert alums of the original show. The film's other main cameo is Christopher Lee as a salty sea captain, and the movie gives us the rare pleasure of watching Lee play opposite a vampire for a change. These are all little things, admittedly, but little things add up.
So boo to Warner Brothers for trying to sell this film as something that it's not. You deserve the crappy box office. It's your own damned fault. Don't look to the movie when you assign the blame, because the movie is perfectly fine as it is. Release this at Halloween with a proper trailer that represents what's actually in the movie, and you'd have a hit. Don't release this in freaking May opposite The Avengers. Y'all dropped the ball on this one.