In 1776, a witch cursed Barnabas Collins for rejecting her in favor of another woman, transforming him into a vampire, and caused him to be buried for almost 200 years. Freed when construction expands around the Maine hamlet of Collinsport — a town founded by his family in better days — Barnabas awakens to a much different world than the one he knew two centuries ago. Can Barnabas restore his family’s fortune and honor, or will the same witch that cursed him destroy his family and Barnabas once and for all?
Based on the old soap opera, Dark Shadows takes a decidedly campy turn as a film. Tim Burton once again finds an excuse for white facepaint, but unlike Edward Scissorhands, this isn’t a subversive swipe at the suburbs. It does poke a little fun at small-town America, but not as egregiously as, say, Doc Hollywood did. The film mostly contents itself in the first half with skewering the early 1970s, at least until the grudge match between Barnabas and the nearly-immortal Angelique begins again in earnest. (To say that she still carries a torch for her vampire is a rather large understatement.) Barnabas has to dispatch construction workers, hippies, and other assorted bit players, but he has trouble getting rid of his rival, and she has just as much problem getting rid of Barnabas … if that’s what she really wants to do.
Dark Shadows is an entertaining bit of fluff, but I suspect it may play to a limited audience. Fans of the old soap opera are probably not going to appreciate the comedic treatment given to their stories, while those who don’t know the show may not be terribly interested in a vampire comedy. However, even without knowing the old show, Dark Shadows is an entertaining, fast-paced film with plenty of laughs and not just a little suspense. It’s as original as a movie based on an old TV series can be, and the climax really does pull out the kitchen sink in characterization, special effects, and plot twists.
Johnny Depp delivers his normal mannered performance as Barnabas, keeping the vampiric elements light. Eva Green (Casino Royale) has a ball playing the evil Angelique, easily the most alive character on the screen. Michelle Pfeiffer and Helena Bonham Carter mainly get wasted in their roles, but Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen) plays a bumbling caretaker/henchman with some style. Bonham Carter’s character feels like make-work; her character seems extraneous to the conflict and certainly to its resolution, and while her performance is good (as is Pfeiffer’s), there isn’t any reason for her to be there. Bella Heathcote is mainly eerie but beautiful in a dual role.
Overall, if you’re looking for some laughs and escapism, Dark Shadows is a pretty good choice. It won’t be on anyone’s top 10 list at the end of the year, but it’s fun and never gets boring. Dark Shadows is rated PG-13 for some drug references, sexual content (a hilarious, if nonsensical, scene that doesn’t include nudity), and — quelle horreur indeed — smoking. We went with friends who brought their 17-year-old daughter, and there wasn’t anything that embarrassed us. However, the after-movie poll had the two men approving and the three women saying, “Meh,” and as a result, the next time we all go out, we have to see a chick flick. Factor that into your calculations.