Ever since the release of Sweeney Todd five years ago, I’ve been worried about the future of Tim Burton. Sweeney Todd was yet another bid of hopeful Oscar consideration on his part that sadly went unnoticed, and with his last film Alice in Wonderland, I decided to just avoid it. It never interested me all that much, and at the time I had never done that ever to Burton. With his newest film Dark Shadows, I was actually looking forward to it, thinking it could be a return to form for Burton (I got a vibe of Beetlejuice almost immediately), and the biggest surprise for me: It’s actually a really entertaining black comedy.
The film stars Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins, an 18th century man who moves with his family to America to start a new life. His parents settle in the town of Collinsport, Maine and create a successful boating company and everything is perfect, until Barnabas breaks the heart of the beautiful Angelique (Eva Green), who turns out to be a witch of the highest order. Soon, she kills his parents, drives his fiancée to suicide, and manages to turn him into a vampire. Eventually, Angelique turns the town against Barnabas and soon seals him in a coffin underground for all eternity.
Two centuries later, in 1972, Barnabas is dug out and finds that the Collins family is in disarray. Although his ancestral home is still there, the family is full of little secrets that they might give the characters of The Addams Family a run for its money. There’s the matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), Elizabeth’s brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), and his son David (Gulliver McGrath), who can see spirits. Also living in the house is caretaker Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley at his quietest), the drunk Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) and David’s new governess Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), who might have a secret of her own brewing in the shadows.
While Barnabas has been locked away, his family’s company has gone up in smoke thanks to the rise of Angelbay Industries, which is owned by Angelique, the same witch who cursed him two centuries before, and is still willing to steal his heart for herself if she can. But for him, it’s almost secondary to restoring his family’s company and name by stealing some of her business. At the same time, he is just trying to understand the new world that he is entered: The 1970s.
Based on a soap opera television series by Dan Curtis (which I have regrettably not seen), Dark Shadows by all purposes should simply not work. Taking the same concept that made 21 Jump Street such a surprise smash, it should be ripe for failure, but ultimately, it is simply one heck of a good time. Depp does some of his best work here as Barnabas, giving him a soul that we actually believe he has. If nothing else, it’s a major step-up from doing Jack Sparrow a fourth time. Eva Green looks absolutely stunning as the temptress witch who will do anything to make Barnabas hers. Their love scene (set to Barry White’s “You’re the First, The Last, My Everything”) is one of the funniest moments of the entire film. Not only was I humming along to the song, but the scene left me howling.
Every member of the current Collins family is also impeccably cast. This is especially true of Chloe Grace Moretz (who continues to build her impressive resume) as Carolyn. Every one of her scenes (except the reveal of her secret in the finale but more on that in a minute) is a scene stealer of impeccable timing. She knows precisely how to work with this material, and if the new Carrie becomes a reality, this is a good starter film to prepare her for it.
Michelle Pfeiffer is finally back on Burton’s radar as the matriarch, and most of her scenes are as well-played as you could ask for. An early scene where Barnabas shows her what she has been sitting on is a scene full of good timing all the way around. Especially with that knife that she’s holding behind her back. You never know what she will actually do with it even when you think you know.
The other members of the cast might not have a lot of screen time, but they do what they can to make their contribution. Jonny Lee Miller might be barely there, but his best scenes come early in the film. Jackie Earle Haley continues to surprise as the caretaker that Barnabas puts under his spell, and Helena Bonham Carter is downright fun as the doctor, but her screen time is limited unfortunately (I refuse to reveal why or it will spoil the fun). But for me, the real find here is Bella Heathcote as Victoria. Looking like a more mature Heather Graham, she makes the most of her role (She also plays Barnabas’s fiancée in the film’s spectacular prologue) and she is also someone who might have a real future ahead of her. When her secret is revealed, it’s a neat twist from what we might have initially thought.
Another good thing about the movie is the music. Once again, Danny Elfman has delivered a wonderful score, but that’s no surprise (This is a Tim Burton film after all). What is a surprise is the amount of late ’60s/early ’70s music that peppers in throughout. The introduction to Victoria over the opening credits is beautifully set to The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin.” I also like the use of the other music in the film, including the odd use of “Theme From A Summer Place” when we catch up with Angelique. And the appearance from Alice Cooper is almost a blink or miss it cameo, but Depp’s line about him nets one of the biggest laughs in the whole film. And the 1970s references are hilarious throwaway gags. I might have been the only person in the theater laughing when I saw Barnabas reading Love Story to Victoria. It’s throw-away jokes like that one that keep the whole enterprise fun and lively.
For at least 90 minutes, Dark Shadows manages to be a fun black comedy in the vein of Burton’s Beetlejuice, but it slips ever so slightly on the film’s special effects-laden finale, which reminded me immediately of the finale of The Witches of Eastwick. Although it is nowhere near as unfocused as that ending, it seems that it manages to touch on a few surprises that are not set up in the least. And the house coming to life to try and kill the family seems like something out of the end of Wicked Stepmother (Anyone remember that movie?). The very end more than makes up for it, but at the same time, the whole finale of the movie seems a little too concentrated on setting up a sequel than setting up a satisfying conclusion.
Still, despite that setback, Dark Shadows managed to be a really entertaining surprise. I’m still thinking about even now, and it’s definitely a film to remember for better or worse. This is much better than Planet of the Apes or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and it’s even more entertaining than Mars Attacks!, but putting it up against Beetlejuice is the film to beat. If you don’t find it as good as Beetlejuice, then you don’t. But there is plenty to like here, even love, but if you have seen Curtis’s original show, it might take you a while to get used to it having The Brady Bunch Movie mentality added to it. Still, audiences should find this entertaining regardless. It might not be The Avengers, but it doesn’t need to be either as long as it’s good, which it is.
Dark Shadows currently ranks #684 out of 3,129 movies on my Flickchart.