‘Shadows’ a dark delight
Nailing it: Johnny Depp as vampire Barnabas Collins in “Dark Shadows.”
Updated: May 10, 2012 12:02PM
DARK SHADOWS ★ ★ ★ 1/2
More than ever, Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins in Tim Burton’s thoroughly enjoyable “Dark Shadows” makes it seem swingin’ to be a vampire.
That’s not surprising, of course. Depp made pirating seem hip in the “Pirates of the Caribbean ” films and for many of the same reasons. Like Captain Jack Black, Depp’s Barnabas is, above all, frequently funny: He’s bemused, occasionally baffled by the surreal strangeness of what’s going on around him (though in this case, the vampire is less ruffled by witches, werewolves and the like than by ’70s flotsam such as lava lamps, troll dolls and Alice Cooper), but always master of the situation — no matter how absurd.
Also like pirate Capt. Jack Black, Depp’s Barnabas has all the cool cachet of a villain, without seeming particularly ... villainous. In fact, he’s downright likable, though you could be excused for buttoning up your collar when he’s nearby. In fact, let’s just get it over with and state the bloody obvious, as it were: He’s the somewhat questionable but nonetheless undeniable hero.
That was the secret of the success of “Dark Shadows,” the daytime gothic-romance soap opera that aired on ABC-TV from 1966 to 1971 and intrigued viewers six months in by introducing ghosts into the mix — then intrigued them further with the introduction of vampire Barnabas (played by instant sensation Jonathan Frid). And the subsequent introduction of zombies, the afore-mentioned werewolves and witches, time-travel, man-made monsters and pretty much anything else that might have seemed outrageous at the time.
Depp, apparently, was a major fan of “Dark Shadows” as a boy and, in fact, wanted to be Barnabas Collins when he grew up. And it’s not surprising that his dream has come true, given his longtime creative partnership with director Tim Burton, an equally passionate devotee of the strange and macabre. (“Edward Scissorhands,” their first collaboration, all the way back in 1990, involved Burton ’s early idol, vintage horror star Vincent Price.) It’s just a very nice thing for anyone who enjoys the same sort of exotic fare that they did. Burton’s “Dark Shadows” (featuring a frequently witty script “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” author Seth Grahame-Smith, also reportedly at work on “Beetlejuice 2”) neatly distills most of the major plot points of the original series, while maintaining its rich, gothic atmosphere (no one does gothic better than Burton)—as well as its occasionally campy tone of daytime TV melodrama. Best of all, the entire production is suffused with the sense that everyone involved had a rare good time making it.
Particularly Depp (whose vampire stylings, by the way, owe as much to Max Schreck in the 1922 “Nosferatu” as Frid), who begins the film by being turned into a vampire and buried alive for 200 years by the servant girl/witch Angelique (Eva Green, wonderfully evil), whose love he spurned in favor of his true love Josette (Australian actress Bella Heathcote). After being dug up by a construction crew in 1972 (and draining them like a famished frat boy at a keg party), the very-much out of time and out of place Barnabas returns to the ruins of his mansion for a reunion with the dysfunctional remnants of the Collins family. As it happens, that calls for an all-female cast, for the most part and Burton has assembled a distaff dream team, featuring his wife (and second-most-welcome collaborator), Helena Bonham Carter, Michelle Pfeiffer and young Chloe Grace Moretz (of “Hugo” and, more to the point, the comic book semi-parody “Kick-Ass” ).
There’s also a mysterious young governess named Victoria in residence (also played by Heathcote), who looks a great deal like Josette (who was hexed into a lovers-leap suicide by Angelique, back in the day) and re-awakens the pain of lost love in the heart of Barnabas. Oh, and Angelique reappears as well, as the latest in a line of witchy incarnations determined to destroy the Collins family.
Undying love, undying hate, family honor, black magic, chaste romance, unholy lust, vampirism, lycanthropy, drug-addled hippies and proto-feminism, “Dark Shadows” tosses a wealth of rich elements into its witches brew and manages to conjure consistent hilarity—and somehow, when we’re least expecting it, occasional moments of deep emotion.
The story drags on a bit too long, perhaps, and it concludes in a way that’s not entirely satisfying (though there’s spectacle and drama to spare in the climactic supernatural showdown), but that probably has something to do with Depp and Burton just not wanting the fun to end.
It’s hard to blame them.