There’s no use ignoring the current power of nostalgia acts in popular cinema. Nearly every summer blockbuster is derivative of some existing story/franchise/universe/comic book or board game. But when it comes to a big screen version of Dark Shadows, chances are most moviegoers aren’t going to see this out of love for the classic soap opera, nor could your average person name more than a few characters. Instead, the new Dark Shadows film is employing nostalgia of nostalgia. The result? While resting on a knife’s edge of intentional kitsch, Dark Shadows is great to look at, fast-paced, and fun, while somehow being just earnest and clunky enough to satiate the die-hard fans of the original show.
For me , Dark Shadows is a comeback movie for Tim Burton. While I’d never call myself a huge Burton fan, I do often find myself being an apologist for his newer films, many of which are supposedly bad. While both Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are plagued by a multitude of problems, the biggest one mostly seems to be the sacred nature of the material being adapted. In short, no one wants to see Tim Burton screw up a beloved story, but people do like complaining he’s “ruined” something. And with stuff as iconic as Lewis Carroll and Roald Dahl, the chances of fumbling are pretty high, particularly when you consider Burton’s macabre-for-the-sake-of-macabre directorial style.
But as much as serious Dark Shadows fans might disagree, the source material here doesn’t have near the amount of protectiveness around it as some of Burton’s other projects. In fact, this kind of thing is absolutely perfect for him to direct, because the various elements he’s good at can be included readily and are encouraged and suggested by the source material. This film has more than one visual cue to Burton imagery, with a lot of stuff echoing Beetlejuice. For the most part though, Burton seems to avoid lingering on just doing weird/intentionally kitschy grotesque stuff just to screw with us. Instead, he makes strong, simple choices. The point of initially showing Barnabas Collins’s (Johnny Depp) face covered in blood as he ambles along the side of the road, is to let us know the movie will take on the qualities of old-school gothic horror. In other words, this choice lets us know the movie has earned the name Dark Shadows. (Even if we don’t know anything about Dark Shadows!)
Beyond the obvious talent of Johnny Depp, everyone else does great here, too. Eva Green has a Geena Davis ala’ Beetlejuice thing going on for her earliest scenes as Angelique, though with a decidedly different character arc. Michelle Pfeiffer is a bit of a scene-stealer as Elizabeth Collins; a prideful matriarch fallen upon hard times. Pfeiffer also looks great, and creates an other-worldliness to the members of the Collins family who are not vampires, werewolves, or in contact with spirits. Basically, Pfeiffer’s Elizabeth Collins is the legitimization to the rest of the weird going on around her. She is perfectly okay with Barnabas having murdered a few people to satisfying his unwanted vampiric tendencies. And she is okay with it, because she’s clearly used to dealing with a lot of shit. I like this little touch of world-weariness because it communicates well with a stock character from a soap opera, but also humanizes all the other characters around her.
The rest of the cast is awesome, with particular shout-out to Bella Heathcote as Victoria/Josette. I’m not sure if I was manipulated into her loving her because of her gorgeous outfits, or her genuine acting chops, but you really do buy her affections for Barnabas, and the very specific and foreshadowed final conflict she finds herself in will have any normal person on the edge of their seat and quite worried.
Dark Shadows is beautifully shot, and after a pre-title sequence which takes place in 1700s, the opening titles featuring Victoria’s train ride to Collinsport sets the stage for a movie which will look like a painting in almost every frame. Coming up for a word to describe this visual aesthetic could range from “Burton-esque,” to “Gothic-chic.” But really, it’s just very, very pretty. I was oddly reminded of last year’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, not because the movies have anything in common with each other, but simply because I was impressed with how much a specific blend of colors was making me excited about the film. Here, Dark Shadows the film has a chance to surpass its source material, because the harsh lighting and lack of depth of soap opera filming is completely traded for rich, subtle and expert filmmaking.
As the trailers assert, the movie is also very funny. I certainly would not call it a comedy. Barnabas’s guilt over having to kill people is portrayed as real. Angelique’s (Eva Green) obsession with Barnabas is serious and sad. And the tale of poor Victoria’s real upbringing is quite heartbreaking. This is not a spoof. This is not a farce.
Instead, it’s a brief, funny, beautiful soap opera about a vampire. Which is exactly right.