The master of pop-gothic cinema, director Tim Burton, and his chameleonic muse Johnny Depp have come together for their seventh film collaboration, Dark Shadows. Based on the same-named soap opera that ran from 1966 to 1972, the movie is an ingeniously entertaining hodgepodge of garish gothic imagery, grotesque horror, soapy over-dramatics, seventies nostalgia and fish-out-of-water comedy. To call the film wildly discursive and somewhat aimless wouldn’t be inaccurate, but for Depp, who plays the highly aristocratic 18th century bloodsucker Barnabas Collins, and Burton, his like-minded guide through this intoxicatingly strange whirlpool, Dark Shadows marks a new height in deranged experimentation. At its best, it’s galvanizing in its dementia.
After a brief prologue explaining his origins as the heir to a 1700’s fishing fortune, Depp’s Barnabas is unearthed after 200 years buried in a coffin. He was transformed into a vampire and buried alive by a wrathful witch named Angelique (Eva Green) whose love for him went unrequited. Now, it’s 1972 and Barnabas waltzes back into his old abode to find his family business in jeopardy and his descendents a motley and dysfunctional lot. They include Michelle Phieffer’s punctilious matriarch Elizabeth, her surly adolescent daughter Caroline (Chloe Moretz), her haunted nephew David (Gulliver McGrath), his sleazy, philandering father (Johnny Lee Miller), their boozing live-in shrink Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), and a strange and delicate new governess named Vicky (Bella Heathcote).
Dropped headfirst into the trailing fumes of the sixties counterculture, Barnabas marvels at lava lamps, troll dolls and television, pensively embracing a culture as odd to modern audiences as his would be to anyone around during the Nixon administration. Burton juxtaposes the antiquity of the film’s old world set design and its 70’s kitsch, creating a link perfectly manifested in a montage of Barnabas roughly settling into his new milieu as Karen Carpenter’s innocuous crooning of “Top of the World” breathes contrapuntal life into the lamest of all 70’s tunes. Among the menagerie of oddballs Barnabas encounters, none are more welcoming than a drum circle of hippies who, like him, are several years too late for the prom, desperately holding onto to a way of life that’s not only out of vogue; it’s also become kitsch. Throughout Dark Shadows, Burton gloriously melds styles and tones. After dispatching the hippies with feral ferocity, Barnabas goes home to sing romantic poetry to Vicky, the reincarnation of his long lost love. Romance is in the air, so are the soft lyrics of 70’s anti-Rock accompanied by the cries of Barnabas’ helpless victims.
He’s a monster, a lover, and an austere patriarch who sets his sights on returning the Collins family to the glory it once knew under his father’s watch. Trouble is, Angelique has magically stayed young over the centuries and her rival cannery has all but put the Collins family into complete destitution. In Barnabas’ day, she was the servant girl in love with the master’s son, heartbroken by the haughty aristocrat, and her vendetta to ruin the Collins’ posterity, driven by the scorn of thwarted romance, is a true—if somewhat perverted—exemplification of American workmanship and enterprise, allowing a working class individual—a woman no less—to topple the blue-blooded oppressors of the old European system of serfdom.
Of course, her love for Barnabas has not wilted since the colonial era. His reluctant attraction to Angelique and his much-purer infatuation with Vicky, a meek and ethereal Jane Eyre, provides the film its obligatory love-triangle, true to any good soap opera. But if the time was ever right for Dark Shadows’ monsters-and-melodrama, Dracula-by-way-of-Guiding-Light experiment in Daytime television to be raised from the dusty, cobweb-infested casket of your grandmother’s midday favorites, it’s now. Vampires and insipid romances have never been as closely intertwined as they are in entertainment today, with Twilight’s ubiquitous adolescent lovers either lighting up your life or shrouding it in perpetual darkness.
The faddish combination of vampires and swooning probably helped Burton get the green light, but the great thing about his version of Dark Shadows is that it’s honest about its macabre romantic soul, while not quite a parody and not completely straight-faced either. Inhabiting some dreamy middle-ground between the series’ actual self-seriousness and Burton’s more sensational and imaginative memory of it, the film finds the best of both worlds, lampooning its source while effectively honoring it. Dark Shadows is not a Brady Bunch Movie-type roast, nor does it embody the show in its original form—it’s a phantasmagoria of dreams, nightmares, anamneses, and gothic reveries mined directly from the cranium of the film’s eccentric creator.
From the appearance of Depp’s Barnabas Collins—with his chalk-white skin, gauntly statuesque facial features, jagged bangs, and Nosferatu fingertips, he’s a sight of ghoulish, uncanny elegance—to the lavishly archaic Collins estate—an opulent haunt that looks like the Addams Family’s extravagantly dusty homestead reborn in the campy hues of the Grand Guinol—its all proof that Burton has concocted this movie from the fruitful well of his wild imagination.