Dark Shadows Movie Review

(spoiler free)
By Jessica Dwyer

I don’t think anyone had higher expectations than me for Tim Burton’s new film Dark Shadows.  When many fans started to immediately bash the film after the first trailers release I still defended it.  The reasons for this were many.  The main ones being that I believed in Burton and Depp as fans of the original material.  I can’t think of any other director in the industry right now who could do right by the creepy and strange dark soap opera that Dan Curtis made.

Whoever took it on to make a feature film in this day and age would have a hard time recreating the series.  Dark Shadows always felt surreal, like a reality skewed from our own.  You would have normal, grounded characters that would make that sense of reality (like Joe Haskell for instance) who would try to keep reality real in the middle of the lunacy they found themselves in.  You would have every day normal issues like a dis-behaving child (who would of course then turn around and try to kill their parent, but that’s another story.)

But it would feel off as though something was always not quite right, and that was part of the appeal.  In a way this was a precursor to realities shown in series like True Blood and the Dresden Files, as well as Supernatural.  But Dark Shadows felt different from even all of these, with the overly dramatic elements of the soap opera that was added to it.  Nothing else has ever really compared to it.

So Tim Burton being at the reigns of the latest feature film version makes a lot of sense.  Look back at Edward Scissorhands and even Ed Wood as well as Mars Attacks.  In those films Burton introduces us to a reality different from what we know as the everyday, but its familiar…sometimes distressingly so.  And within those worlds are characters that, well, we wish were in our everyday world because it would be a lot more interesting.

And that’s why this film succeeds in nearly everything it sets out to do.  Starting out with a voice over from Depp doing a spot on Jonathan Frid impression, we are given the story of how the Collins family came to America and we follow Barnabas through to his being cursed as a vampire.  I personally love the twist on how this happens.  It’s not a major change but it’s far more dramatic and poetic, and something I’ve often wondered why it never happened in the series.

The film then switches into the “modern age” and we find Victoria Winters arriving in Collinsport and then Collinwood itself.  We’re in quick succession introduced to the residents of the run down estate.

I personally loved Collinwood and the set design.  Burton is firing on all cylinders with the way this film looks.  It’s beautiful and the interior of Collinwood is stunning in the details, such as the tentacle chandelier that looks like it belongs in the home of HP Lovecraft.

The actors are having a blast in this movie and it shows.  Eva Green as Angelique was stunning.  I also love their design of her character as well.  I don’t want to go into spoilers at all if I can help it with this review, but the analogy of her as a broken human isn’t farfetched.  She nearly stole the movie and held her own well against Johnny’s performance.

Bella Heathcote as Josette/Vicki is also very good and with her haunting blue eyes a perfect choice for the very haunted Vicki.  One of the complaints I have with this film is the lack of interaction between her and Barnabas.  I would have liked more of the love story aspect here as it would only add to the film.  Much like House of Dark Shadows did, we are simply to believe these two connected and fell in love in quick order.  But I have to say this did a better job of it than House did and it made more sense why (House was cut to bits and we’ll hopefully get more in the promised blu ray release later this year or early next.)  Still they played opposite one another well, so I would have liked more depth there.  Perhaps on the DVD release of this film we’ll get a little more.

Michelle Pfeiffer does a good job as Elizabeth, the matriarch of the Collins family.  She’s certainly trying to channel the essence of Joan Bennett.  In some scenes she actually looks like the actress.  Once again though, it felt like we could have used more of her character developed.  It almost felt like she was trying too hard.   I would have liked more background on Elizabeth (although we do get hints that her story is much like it was in the original series.)

Chloe Grace Moretz as Carolyn, Elizabeth’s rebelling daughter is snide and snarly.  She also does a good job with the character she has.  But the same problem lies here (which is a problem for a feature film of a soap opera, you only have so much time for character set up when a TV series has an entire season to do so.)  Carolyn dreams of escaping the life she’s trapped in within the confines of Collinwood.  And one can’t blame her as she’s surrounded by people who are not the most normal or stable.

Roger Collins (played by the always entertaining Jonny Lee Miller) is a complete ass.  Unlike the original Roger played by Louis Edmonds, this Roger has no sort of loyalty to his family.  His wife is gone and he’s stuck with a son who claims he talks to his dead mother.  Roger is not a stable source of guidance for anyone.  And Miller plays the part perfectly.  He’s snide and channels that snide and smartass side of Roger that Edmonds had at times dead on.

Gulliver McGrath who plays David, Roger’s son is sweet and also does a good job with what is given to him.  Sadly, David seems to melt into the background quite a bit.  Another of those cases of editing down I feel, as one of my favorite images that Warner’s released, of David playing with his dinosaurs with Barnabas, doesn’t actually happen in the film.

Helena Bonham Carter as Julia Hoffman was one part of the film I was most disappointed in.  This was not due to her performance but due to the fact that she wasn’t on screen enough.  Her character is one of the most changed from the original series, and for many a die-hard Dark Shadows fan this is going to be the hardest part to take.  But if you go by the way House of Dark Shadows played out, it makes sense in one way.  Condensing an entire chunk of a TV series into a film has downsides.  And this is sadly one of them.

Jackie Earle Haley as Willie Loomis was a treat.  Loomis here is a drunkard but not a mean one.  He’s stuck with the family, as well as Mrs. Johnson, the two of them being the only servants left in a house requiring far more to keep going.  But he’s not happy about it and he’s happy to bitch and moan to anyone who will listen.  JEH plays this role well and it lets him show his knack for comedy (that we saw in Semi-Pro briefly and far more often in his Bad News Bears days.)  I’d love to have seen more banter between him and Barnabas.

Last but not least we come to Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins.  What many were concerned about was the comedic aspects that were shown in the trailer.  And yes there are funny moments throughout this film.  But Depp doesn’t make Barnabas a joke.  Barnabas is deadly serious and Depp plays him perfectly.  He channels the voice and grace of Jonathan Frid and brings to it the intensity he showed as Sweeney Todd, at other times, when Barnabas is at a loss or out of his depth in the new modern world we see glimpses of a sweeter side that balances the character.

Barnabas here, much like he was in the series, is not a perfect hero by any stretch.  His inability to keep himself in check when it comes to Angelique is the reason he’s cursed and he can’t seem to break that habit.  He’s also fiercely protective of his family and even though he loathes the need, he kills to survive.

Depp’s performance was exactly what I wanted it to be.  He paid homage to a great actor and a great character.  He kept the touches that Frid made and added his own bit of spin.  Barnabas’s look is also very iconic and a beautiful meshing of designs that came before, Nosferatu being a prime example. Christopher Lee of course is a prime example of an influence on Depp’s portrayal of a vampire as well as his career if I hazard a guess.  His cameo in the film is a treat to not only the audience but Depp himself who stated that getting to hypnotize Dracula was one of the greatest things he’d done in his career. If I had to find fault with this part of the film it would be I wanted more pre-vampire Barnabas.  But this is once again an example of the limits of a feature film.  Depp nailed it and you can expect to see quite a few Barnabas Collins’s walking about this Halloween.

Music in the film is a character in and of itself, much like in the series.  Danny Elfman has created a beautiful score that was inspired by the original series music (and many parts harkening back once again to House of Dark Shadows.)  I loved the music and the soundtrack.  The period music, such as The Moody Blues etc. is used to help set a mood of the freaky and funky 70’s where the movie takes place.  At some points it can be distracting, but like it or not, this is the music of the time period.  Alice Cooper’s appearance in the film is a far bigger piece than you’d think, and Burton uses his music to set a mood as well (especially one choice bit with Carolyn that I loved.)   It works in the movie and I enjoyed it.

Dark Shadows is a big love letter from fans who could get the backing and interest of the studios to let them send it to the masses and the original creators of the series.  This was evident with the brief but poignant appearance of the original cast as Barnabas welcomes them through the door to Collinwood.  I admit I had a tear in my eye as I saw Jonathan Frid appear on the screen.  It meant a lot to me as a fan to see him one last time.  And I know that it did to Depp and Burton.

Is this the same Dark Shadows that we’ve known before?  Yes and no.  The soul and character of the show are here.  But these are in many ways more damaged characters.  There’s a darkness (no pun intended) to each of them.  They are damaged and it’s telling that Barnabas is the only creature who seems to give a damn about them all.  They all have a demon in their closet.  A skeleton is far too kind of a term.

I really enjoyed this film and my expectations were high.  In fact, the problems I had with it were exactly the ones I figured would be the issue.  What did they leave out, how lean would it be on story due to time, those issues were the big ones.  I was truly surprised by one key piece that was left out of the film which has always been a part of the Barnabas/Josette storyline, and as I want to keep this as spoiler free as possible it irks me to mention it.  But the fact that the music box wasn’t here made me a bit sad.  But I was pleased with how they handled the Josette myth so much that I can forgive them even that.

And after this rather long review I give Dark Shadows a healthy A-.  Go see it if you are a fan of the series and I think you’ll be rather surprised by how much you enjoy it.  Remember, this is not the first remake of the show.  The original cast remade themselves with House.  Curtis redid it in the 90’s, and the WB network nearly succeeded in redoing it in the early 00’s.  Out of all of these this version (sans House) is more true to the original series.  Yes there are funny parts because the absurdity cannot be ignored.  But don’t be fooled, the dark shadows of Collinwood are just as black as ever they were.  So light a candle, grab your cane, and take a walk through them if you dare.