'Dark Shadows' May Not Satisfy Fans, But It's Better Than the Usual Burton-Depp Shtick


That sums up the reaction of Dark Shadows fans upon seeing the initial trailer for the movie adaptation of their favorite TV show, the spooky soap opera now 40 years past. Directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp, the new version seemed more wacky sitcom than gothic melodrama—with lots of '70s jokes thrown in just because they can. Online message boards were aflame with the blood-fury of vengeful devotees of Collinwood mansion. But why get so worked up over a TV series that wasn't exactly a piece of high art in the first place? One that hasn't enjoyed much attention in the '00s like other bits of "classic" television?

In the pre-Internet era, before nerdom became a ruthless, all-powerful force in entertainment, Dark Shadows was an important show. Back then, if you were a serious fan of genre fiction, the three (three!) television networks didn't offer much recognition of your existence. The science-fiction geeks had Star Trek, speculative-fiction purists had The Twilight Zone, but for horror fans, there was…. what, The Munsters? So, the arrival of vampire Barnabas Collins on ABC's oddball Dark Shadows in 1967 means a lot more to certain people than you might expect. Although the low-budget soap opera went off the air in 1971, its producers had cranked out over 1,200 episodes, and even in the eternal life of reruns it was one of the few shows featuring the supernatural without being silly. If you were a dorky book-reading kid in the '70s or '80s, chances are you were struck anew by Dark Shadows' seemingly endless tale of conflicted vampires, witches, warlocks, and werewolves. It wasn't always great melodrama, but the show took its characters seriously, and kept you wondering about the secrets they held.

Contrast that with the foppish 18th-century figure of a pallid Johnny Depp being "amazed" by a lava lamp as "Superfly" plays on the soundtrack, and you can see why there was some concern. With this seventh movie collaboration, Burton and Depp are now a Hollywood brand rather than daring outsiders, delivering a predictable style of kooky comedy—could Dark Shadows' original qualities survive their profitable shtick?

For superfans, it's probably DOA. Although the movie is not nearly the laff riot portrayed in the trailer, it doesn't take its source material very seriously. But for those seeking a cool respite from the summer-movie season of explosive bombast, it's a pleasant bit of fluff, if not quite a return to form for Burton.

The story remains mostly true to the TV series: Early New England entrepreneur Barnabas Collins spurns the love of the witch Angelique (Eva Green), who in turn curses his family, kills his true love Josette, and condemns him to eternal misery as a vampire, chained inside a coffin buried deep in the woods. Fast forward 200 years, and Barnabas is accidentally released from his crypt by construction workers, upon whom he regretfully slakes his centuries-old thirst. He finds that much has changed since his entombment: His mansion is in ruins, his family is dissipated, and Angelique now controls the city of Collinsport and its fishing industry. Meanwhile, a mysterious tutor named Victoria (Bella Heathcote) has traveled to the mansion, and she looks like Josette reincarnated. Barnabas quickly vows to restore the Collins family to power and to woo Victoria.

So far, not so bad: What we have here is a standard soap-opera storyline of lost love, power struggles, vendettas, family discord, and murder. It's honestly a bit refreshing from our usual multiplex diet of superhero saviors, romantic non-comedies, and mass killings (by one-man armies, serial killers, monsters, etc.). The only problem is that Burton doesn't go all-in for gothic melodrama—he wants his slapstick, too. And the wacky hijinks disrupt the foundations of eeriness that Burton successfully lays with Dark Shadows' earnest prelude showing Barnabas' downfall and Victoria's arrival.

It's as if Burton didn't trust his audience to be intrigued by the story alone. But that's really all the original Dark Shadows ever had, since it couldn't afford special effects or grandiose sets. The allure of a soap opera lies in its characters—you must care about them and want to learn more about their torrid backgrounds, so their over-the-top emotions and self-destructive actions are all the more gratifying to witness. It is the spectacle of bad behavior that we want to see in a great soap opera. Yet, with this adaptation, Burton only goes half-way: As soon as we sort of start caring about Dark Shadows' characters and their struggles, we hit a steady stream of '70s gags involving McDonald's, the Carpenters, Alice Cooper, etc., etc. Depp is an accomplished comic actor, and he's genuinely funny here; Green is particularly entertaining as his nemesis. So what's to complain about?

It's just the difference between a mass-appeal movie and one made for the niche audience of hardcore fans. This wacky Dark Shadows will probably do better box office than the true Dark Shadows its followers wanted. And it's actually quite fun. But the Burton and Depp who collaborated on Ed Wood almost 20 years ago would've made a more unique film that we can only imagine.