'Dark Shadows' Rises
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Recently, on a social media forum, a colleague speculated that "cynics" might consider this new horror-comedy collaboration between director Tim Burton and actor (and here co-producer) Johnny Depp as yet another "unasked-for pop-culture exhumation by the baby boom generation." For "Dark Shadows" is, ostensibly, an adaptation and/or send-up of the 1970s soap opera that at the time had the distinction of being the sole daytime serial with an explicitly supernatural angle. That is, its multiple romance-and-scandal plotlines were often presided over by a strangely sympathetic vampire named Barnabas Collins. It was this aspect that gave the series its especial frisson for, as my colleague notes, baby boomer viewers, but I believe that to view this movie as some sort of exhumation is, in fact, to overthink it.
My belief is that the premise of reviving Barnabas Collins and his brood, and doing so in a re-created 1972, complete with references to Erich Segal's best-selling "Love Story" and replays of a lot of the pop music hits of the time (not to mention an appearance by one of said hit-makers), mostly represented to Burton a market-friendly pretext for making yet another one of his favorite exercises: the not quite serious, but not entirely flippant variant on the visually stylish Mario Bava-executed B-horror film.
The great Martin Scorsese has described the appeal of Bava (whose films include classics such as "Black Sunday" and "Kill, Baby, Kill") thusly: "Hardly any story, just atmosphere, with all that fog and ladies walking down corridors; a kind of Italian gothic." Being adapted from an old soap (the story's by Burton stalwart John August and "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" author Seth Grahame-Smith, who authored the screenplay), "Dark Shadows" has lots of story, involving the dual nature of vampire Barnabas' affections, the vampire's bemusement at confronting the modern world after spending the better part of two centuries chained in a coffin, and his attempts to revive the fortunes of his surviving descendants. These include a harried heiress (Michelle Pfeiffer), her rotter brother (Jonny Lee Miller), two children, both disturbed in their own way (withdrawn little boy Gulliver McGrath and sassy hippie-chick wannabe teen Chloe Grace Moretz). The house also features a kooky shrink played by Helena Bonham Carter and a new governess who may be a reincarnation of Barnabas' lost love from the 1700s.
Confused yet? There's more: The still living, and still exceptionally pneumatic and lusty, witch who cursed Barnabas to begin with has bested his family in business and is now determined to best him yet again. As played by Eva Green with fierce and amusing physicality and a hardboiled U.S. accent, this Angelique quite credibly appeals to Barnabas' more animal desires, while Bella Heathcote's Josette/Victoria is suitably wispy and ethereal and, yes, does provide a lot of the requisite "ladies walking down corridors" action. And as Barnabas, Depp is having a ball as usual, bringing a balletic grace that's both eerie and funny to his undead man out of time. And raising his eyebrows very amusingly.
For all the plot that's unfolding, the movie keeps a very deliberate pace. Burton's long-take dialogue exchanges are pretty slow by superhero movie standards. And that's fine with me. The subject matter, the characters and the quirky humor give Burton ample opportunity to steep things in a big-budget version of old-school genre fog. One could even call what he does "indulgent." He throws in a cameo from horror icon Christopher Lee (a former Dracula!), and hires old-school shock-rocker Alice Cooper to appear as his much-younger self, and then arranges some compelling madhouse imagery around one of Cooper's classic '70s tunes, "The Ballad of Dwight Fry."
My own high rating for this movie stems at least in part from the fact that these represent my kind of indulgences, if you will (and I happen to believe, ahem, that their appeal is immortal rather than boomer-specific, although some might consider this mistaken). I'll admit that I would find any movie that could credibly fuse elements of "The Tales of Hoffmann," "The Exorcist" and "The Haunting" for its big-deal climax is gonna win me over, even if it's throwing narrative coherence out the window as it does so (and it does).
And for all that, there's a sense in which the movie takes its story's threaded themes of abandonment and family loyalty almost seriously, which gives it an unexpected if not fully realized resonance. I mean, "The Ballad of Dwight Fry" isn't entirely a cartoon song itself, either, so Burton's working in a real if underappreciated tradition here. In a time when even the most accomplished genre movies have the fingerprints of focus group-happy execs all over them, the relatively unmitigated quirk of "Dark Shadows" is worth celebrating.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.