Last night Tim Burton’s latest production, Dark Shadows appeared in my local theatre and so I and my colleagues went out to see what the creator of Beetlejuice and the Nightmare Before Christmas had to say for himself.
Dark Shadows had its origins as an American supernatural soap opera in the 1960s and 70s, which combined the standard plot entanglements and melodrama of a soap opera with ghosts, alternate worlds, vampires and werewolves. One of the big boosts to the show’s popularity was the introduction of the protagonist family’s ancestor, the vampire Barnabas Collins. Barnabas was a breakout character for the series, and in an age when vampire fiction is enjoying one of its periodic heydays, Burton has made him the central character of his film.
Barnabas Collins was the son of a successful 18th century tycoon. Spurning the affections of the witch Angelique, he finds his family cursed, his parents killed, his lady love sent to her death, and himself turned into an immortal vampire and locked into a coffin to think about what he’s done.
Fast forward to 1972, one Victoria Winters, a slightly strange young lady arrives in the town of Collinsport, to serve as a governess to the troubled young nephew of the current matriarch of the Collins clan, now reduced to a family of eccentrics living in their run-down estate house. Her charge, young David, is convinced that his dead mother speaks to him. His father is a money-grubbing, neglectful debaucher. His live-in therapist is a useless alcoholic, as is the house help. David’s cousin Carolyn is a typical angsty 15-year-old.
Even as Victoria begins to see signs that David may not simply be acting out from grief, a construction crew digs up Barnabas. After massacring them (with fulsome apologies, he’s extremely thirsty) Barnabas resumes control of the family and begins to resurrect the business. He also becomes enamoured of Victoria, who bears an uncanny resemblance to his lost beloved. At the same time, he begins, in his own special way, to restore the dignity and wellbeing of his family. His efforts become all the more ferocious when he realizes that the current business magnate of the town is none other than ‘Angela,’ the same witch who cursed him and his family.
There’s a lot of good stuff in this movie. There’s humour for everybody. Different parts of the theatre laughed at different things. Barnabas – played by Johnny Depp – and his anachronistic bewilderment is great comedy material. The 70’s camp aesthetic on its own is a hoot. Chloe Moretz (Hit Girl in Kick-Ass) goes at the ‘angsty 70’s teen’ role with her usual gusto.
The story itself is vacuously enjoyable. Its major weakness is that it suffers an excess of B-plots. Given that this was based on a soap opera, I’m not entirely certain that this wasn’t intentional. Nevertheless, Barnabas’ showdown with Angelique is mixed up with the tensions of David and his father, Victoria’s past and her affection for Barnabas, and Carolyn’s…issues. They tend to surface in the story seemingly at random and then get drowned in each other again. Themes of love and redemption, humanity and monstrosity, and the meaning of family are all there, but none of them get substantial airplay.
The movie is a lot of fun, to be sure. Nevertheless it’s all over the place, a bit like several movies all slamming into each other. Or, more probably, several episodes of a soap compacted into one movie.
A jack-of-all-trades, master of none, Dark Shadows has something for everyone, it’s simply a matter of taste whether it has enough of any of those things. Give it a whirl and find out!
PS Credit must go to my journalistic colleague Clare for the title of this entry. Cheers.