Stars: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green, Chloë Grace Moretz, Bella Heathcote, Jackie Earle Haley, Johnny Lee Miller, Gulliver McGrath and Helena Bonham Carter.
Writers: Seth Grahame-Smith
Director: Tim Burton
Running time: 113 mins.
No one is suggesting that the Warner Bros marketing team would have had an easy time clearly defining the essence of Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows for mass-market appeal, but they should have put more effort into selling this delightfully dippy horror-comedy-romance than settling for the kitschy ‘retro-cool’ easy-out that the trailers have us all expecting.
Those queuing for the sort of giggly nonsense that the ad campaign promises – ‘Captain Jack Sparrow’ as a pasty bloodsucker, circa 1972 – will be bummed, but those familiar with Dan Curtis’ original TV series may be perfectly satiated. Burton and super-hot scripter Seth Grahame-Smith (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter; the proposed Beetlejuice sequel) have nailed the gothic excesses and soap-opera plotting of the concept’s origins with delirious precision.
Though frustratingly uneven at times (the mid-section plods), this occasionally wondrous work - the eighth collaboration between Johnny Depp and Burton - doesn’t reach the glorious heights of Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood, but it is every bit as good as Sleepy Hollow and Corpse Bride and a whole lot better (and bloodier) than Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. Most of all, Dark Shadows is very much Burton in Beetlejuice-mode - there are at least two dinner table scenes that delight, a giant banister-snake, a structurally-discordant family, a charmingly-oddball isolated mansion of acute angles and a surly teen-queen rebel (Chloë Grace Moretz in the Winona Ryder role).
Burton promises much with a dazzling pre-credit sequence that establishes the murderous passion of his anti-heroine, the witch Angelique (a terrifically OTT Eva Green). She pines for the aristocratic settler Barnabas Collins (Depp) but looses him to his true-love, Josette DuPres (luminous Australian Bella Heathcote). Angelique curses Barnabas to eternal life as a vampire and has him buried; a beautiful photographic wipe then transports the story to 1972 Collinsport, a town so named for the fishing industry established by Barnabas’ generational clan.
But by 1972, the Collins dynasty is in ruins. The mansion is decrepit; matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) barely maintains the estate for her daughter Carolyn (Moretz), despicable brother Roger (Johnny Lee Miller), his troubled son David (Gulliver McGrath) and the boy’s shrink, a constantly smashed Dr Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter). When Barnabas’ coffin is disturbed by a construction crew (much to their regret, in an icky but expertly-staged sequence), the 200 year-old grave-dweller re-establishes himself at the head of the clan and sets about destroying the rival fishing company (still run by Green’s ageless succubus) and wooing the new nanny, Victoria (also Heathcote), the spitting image of Josette and who carries her own dark secrets.
The cool soundtrack and now-vs-then vibe that dominates the marketing spin is all there in Burton’s work, but it’s not the film that punters are being sold. With ghosts carrying their own vengeful secrets and the undead living out there endless existence in Burton’s small coastal village, Dark Shadows mostly resembles the frantically-staged supernatural existentialism of Peter Jackson’s 1996 film The Frighteners in its ambitious scope, giggly dark humour and love-conquers-all message. And much like that film, it may not find its truest following and proper critical appreciation until many years after its release.