The greatness that is Dark Shadows may be lost on you. I say this without hubris, but rather with a dismal understanding that gothic romance and daytime soap melodramas have simply gone out of vogue. But Tim Burton, ever dwelling in the past, captures the grand sweep and often ridiculous theatricality of both forms in a film that is enchanting, funny, wonderfully performed and just a little flawed. As a former theater geek, perpetual horror hound and a child of “As the World Turns,” I found it impossible not to adore Burton’s love note to some storytelling styles that could actually use a little love. But then again, as the credits rolled, I was pretty much the only one clapping. Maybe I’m nuts – strike that, of course I’m nuts – but Dark Shadows speaks to me, and perhaps me alone. Weep for my isolation, if you must.
Dark Shadows is an adaptation of the popular gothic soap opera “Dark Shadows” (yes, believe it!), which ran from 1966 to 1971. There were 1,225 episodes, so… suck it, Buffy. I never saw it – like I said, I was an “As the World Turns” kid – but it amassed a large cult following thanks to its gothic theatricality and supernatural storylines, which were a novelty in the medium at the time. Adapting a serialized narrative that long, and that funky, was no doubt a hefty task, undertaken here by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies author Seth Grahame-Smith and director Tim Burton, a duo who seem rather perfect for each other.
The story of Dark Shadows, the film, follows the Collins family from their migration to America in the 18th Century all the way to 1972, when Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcoate) approaches Collinwood Manor with a mysterious past and a hankering to get her governess on. The family, comprised of stalwart Elizabeth Collins (Michelle Pfeiffer), her nymphet daughter Carolyn Stoddard (Chloe Moretz), her ne’er-do-well brother Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller), and his gloomy son David Collins (Gulliver McGrath), has fallen into financial ruin thanks to an apparent family curse, supernatural secrets and the machinations of Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), an icy fishing magnate with a lifelong grudge against the Collins clan.
The opening of Dark Shadows is filled with promises of eerie creakings, portentous sidelong glances and unsettling revelations, and I would have been perfectly content for the film to stay that way, in an off-putting but dryly humorous send up of Charlotte Bronte conventions. I swiftly came to dread the appearance of Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), the television series’ breakout character who, if the trailers were any indication, would counteract the doom and gloom as a cheap element of comic relief, falling prey to every fish out of water joke in the proverbial book. But the resurrection of the tragic lover as a vampire, complete with an understandable and rather polite bloodlust, mercifully befits Burton’s melodramatic tone. The humor gets a little lighter, but the arch storylines, theatrical performances and surprisingly effective soap opera dynamics – complete with “should we or shouldn’t we” romantic subplots and moral dilemma business dealings – never fall by the wayside, even as Dark Shadows’ humor occasionally drifts into “easy joke” territory.
Tim Burton is in his element here, directing a tale that simultaneously skewers the fallacy of “normal” family life and celebrates the Hot Topic sensibilities he pioneered in 1988’s Beetlejuice. Covering as much ground as it does, Dark Shadows repeatedly loses focus, forgetting about the lovely and tortured Bella Heathcoate for what feels like days on end and falling prey to a formulaic supernatural beat down in its closing minutes, but these failings and casual attempts to pander to mainstream audiences never distract from the simple pleasures Burton more importantly offers: an arch, dense saga of a family’s sins coming back to haunt them, and the significance of a family bond in fighting back the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
And of course there’s always Moretz, who appears for all the world to be in the midst of one long Lolita audition as she vamps through the musty halls, grooving to 70’s rebel rock and apparently attempting to seduce the very scenery with her jailbait frame. The discomfort is intentional, but also the natural result of young hormones with, like everything else in Dark Shadows, a secret or two behind it. Dark Shadows never shies away from murder, sensuality or any other sort of tawdriness, giving the film the lurid thrill that daytime soaps seemed to monopolize for decades on end.
But alas, the archness of the storytelling, the oppressive quirk of the performances and the extremely dry tone of Dark Shadows makes one suspect that it’s out of place in the summer season, when competition from less-challenging thrills seems destined to push it out of the public eye, and even earn scornful resentment from audiences to whom the film's delicate balance of subtlety and absolute mania might seem impenetrable. I myself could spend years happily attempting to penetrate Dark Shadows mysteries, and only regret that Burton’s remake was over in two hours, and not the start of another thousand.