Dark Shadows, the most recent offering by the dynamic duo of Director Tim Burton and star Johnny Depp (or a terrific trio if you include Helena Bonham Carter, who has collaborated with them on projects such as Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the 2007 film version of the musical Sweeney Todd, and Alice in Wonderland), is in many ways what one would expect. It has a decidedly dark aesthetic, a supernatural storyline, and enough twisted humor to qualify it as a comedy/horror hybrid, a genre that we have come to count on Tim Burton to handle deftly.
In the film, Barnabas Collins is a wealthy, 18th-century Maine aristocrat whose family sets the foundation of the town of Collinsport. But when a rejected former flame turns out to be a vengeful witch, she turns him into a vampire, curses his family, and begins to demolish their wealth and stature using her powers to wrest economic control of their fishing business for herself. When Barnabas is released from the tomb she had placed him in 200 years before, he finds his remaining descendants and sets himself on restoring his family’s prestige.
Johnny Depp’s performance is excellent. In a way that harkens back to performances like 1990’s Edward Scissorhands, he handles the outsider character of Barnabas Collins with subtlety and authenticity. Much of the film’s comedy lies in his adaptation to the unusual existence of a vampire in a human’s world, in his amusing encounters with a modern world for which he is totally unprepared, and especially in his reckoning with a contemporary view of sexuality and women’s empowerment (he immediately mistakes his ill-tempered, 15-year-old descendant, Carolyn, for a prostitute).
Michelle Pfeiffer plays Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, the current matriarch of the Collins dynasty and mistress of their ancestral home, Collinwood. She commands the screen and convincingly portrays Elizabeth as a pragmatic and fiercely protective mother figure. Their shared commitment to family is what bonds her and Barnabas from their first meeting and is what really gives the audience something to root for.
In a scene-stealing performance, Eva Green plays powerful witch and Barnabas’ scorned ex-lover, Angelique Bouchard. She pulls off the icy seductress with ease and captures the dark, supernatural essence that drives the film’s conflict. Angelique’s scenes with Barnabas are both dramatic and humorous, as her character’s gradual adaptation to centuries of change contrasts Barnabas’ antiquated ways.
Helena Bonham Carter inhabits the alcoholic psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman, a character who provides not only some comic relief in her flawed, eccentric ways, but actually a complex portrait of a woman who could use some therapy herself. Like the rest of the lead cast, her performance is understated enough to make her character seem realistic. It would be easy to create caricatures, but the characters in this film are treated with nuance and sincerity despite their unusual circumstances. Tim Burton shows his skill in developing a world that is different enough from our to be intriguing, but similar enough to ours to be relatable.
Overall, Dark Shadows is a must-see for fans of Tim Burton’s previous work, and it just might pleasantly surprise those unfamiliar with the genre. As I’ve said, the acting is compelling and interestingly stylized. And with a budget of $150 million, its special effects are state-of-the-art and the film is on the whole visually stunning, so cinematographiles will be pleased (it also has one of the best websites I’ve ever seen). So if you’re looking for a little twisted fun, I’d definitely recommend absconding to the dark shadows of a movie theatre to see this one.
P.S. The trailers for my showing tipped me off on another Tim Burton project coming out this year: a full-length, black-and-white stop-motion animation film called Frankenweenie, based on his 1984 short film of the same name, set for release on October 5. It’s going to be a good Halloween!