Imagine: A massive, creepy, 200-year-old Gothic mansion, set in picturesque Maine by the sea. And to boot, the mansion has some visually stunning ghosts and is home to a polite, charming, but nonetheless bloodthirsty vampire. Interested?
We were. Neither of us had ever watched the original television show Dark Shadows, and we’re not real big Tim Burton fans, either, so we never went to the theater last year to see Burton’s take on the old TV series. On the other hand, Burton does have a way with creating a creepy setting, and Johnny Depp does have a knack for immersing himself rather nicely in a variety of characters, so that did provide at least a little temptation to see the 2012 film (truthfully, of the two of us, Marie was a lot more tempted, having a liking for Depp in dramatic fish-out-of-water roles, but no matter).
In short, at least one of us wasn’t all that crazy to see the film when it showed up on local cable recently and wasn’t expecting much … but he enjoyed the movie despite his misgivings, even discovering it a visual treat. Which, to be fair, a lot of film critics did also mention in their reviews: they liked the look, so darkly elegant, even if they didn’t think all that much of the film overall. The other of us simply forbore from saying I Told You So and watched it for Mr. Depp, who buried himself so deeply into this character that no hint of the enigmatic actor remained, only a befuddled vampire with his mind set on recovering the family fortune. Gratifying!
Dark Shadows catches you from the very first scenes, giving us the back story on how Barnabas Collins becomes a vampire. Then the movie jumps to pop-kitschy 1972, when the new governess Victoria – the appealing Australian, Bella Heathcote – arrives on a train in the picturesque small town of Collinsport and heads for Collinwood Manor. Once there, she gets her first scene with the ageless, beautiful and talented Michelle Pfeiffer, which is just terrific. Pfeiffer’s character, of course, is the head of the current-day Collins family. Her first encounter with Barnabas is even more memorable. Then there’s the scene with the shotgun … but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
You immediately get the sense that just about everything in this place is off, somehow. The decrepit manor house is off, the townsfolk are off, the groundskeeper/handyman played by a befuddled and wonderfully loony Jackie Earle Haley is off, and the children are most definitely off, even for a teen and tween. Young Carolyn seems permanently hostile-sulky and just a shade too observant for her age, whereas little David needs a special kind of governess because he claims to keep seeing the ghost of his mother, and his father can’t be counted upon to give a damn about anything other than sex and money. His father, the Collins brother to Pfeiffer’s sexy, dead-serious dowager, just about gave us a start. We hadn’t imagined a graying, grasping Jonny Lee Miller in a polyester leisure suit, especially after having seen him as an unshaven modern iteration of Sherlock Holmes in CBS’s new hit series, Elementary. Good heavens! That suit’s enough to give you a fright all by itself.
Fortunately, Depp’s Barnabas Collins has a lot of good lines, and some that are actually thought provoking, too. He makes a great straight-man counterpoint to all the retro ’70s stuff, and his straight-line reactions to the era are some of his funniest readings. And his encounters with various others in seeking advice to understand the times in which he’s landed are among his best scenes. Well … that, and a fit of hot and heavy sex that comes much later.
We mentioned ghosts. There are two: young David’s mother, who keeps an eye on him but shows up in the film only rarely, and Josette DuPres, the younger Barnabas’s beloved, whom the wicked witch of this film killed at the same time she cursed him with vampirism and buried him. That Victoria looks so much like Josette is something Barnabas notices immediately, and not a coincidence: Victoria has been seeing the ghost of Josette all her life and was, as a child, locked up in a sanatorium for it. But she’s out now and has been drawn to the manor house for reasons she doesn’t yet understand. We suspect, however, and all is revealed in the fullness of time.
Must put in a good word for Eva Green: she tackles the role of Angelique the witch with aplomb and gusto, not to say reckless enthusiasm, without ever quite going completely over the top. She’s a larger than life character for sure, that Angelique – and ever so misnamed, being not even remotely angelic. It’s so different from her roles in Casino Royale and The Golden Compass. Nice to know she has a good range as an actress.
There wasn’t much of a plot, truthfully (that part needed more work; it had a good premise but was short on delivery) and a not completely satisfying resolution, which should have felt a lot more rewarding than it did. Also, the character of the vampy (no pun intended) Dr. Hoffmann the shrink, played by the skilled but underused Helena Bonham-Carter, needed a touch more development. We never understand why the psychiatrist is the way she is. Still, Bonham-Carter had fun with the role. She should consider becoming a redhead: it suited her, as did the ’60s ‘flip’ hairdo.
Dark Shadows has a great soundtrack and features aging rocker Alice Cooper, who does a creditable job of recreating his much-younger self. Not being a big music follower, Michael didn’t know that the “Cooper woman,” as Barnabas refers to him, can actually sing (Marie, having lived through the ‘70s, did know but preferred to forget that era). Also, the Carpenters’ sickeningly saccharine-cheery song “Top Of The World,” which Marie found unbearable even back then (oh, horrors!), is used wittily as a variety of things happen while it plays.
Dark Shadows definitely has a spooky quality in places, though it’s not lugubriously dark the way Burton’s films can sometimes get. Oh, and the ghosts end up being key to the resolution. We can’t say more: spoilers! Don’t take the movie too seriously (Marie never took any part of that decade seriously except for Nixon’s resignation, and a good thing, too – too campy and full of ill-considered clothing). If you watch the movie with no expectations, you’ll enjoy it more. That’s the spirit!
Thrills and chills until next time,
Michael and Marie