With Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green, Helena Bonham Carter, Bella Heathcote. Written by Seth Grahame-Smith. Directed by Tim Burton. Rated PG-13 for comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking. 113 minutes.
It’s a safe bet that many people going to see DARK SHADOWS will be only vaguely aware of the late 1960s gothic soap opera upon which it is based. This latest collaboration between director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp is easily the best thing they’ve done together since “Sweeney Todd” and before that, “Ed Wood.” Unlike the indication in the early trailers, it hasn’t let the comic relief overwhelm the gothic melodrama.
Barnabas Collins (Depp) comes to Maine as a young boy in the 18th century where his family starts their fortune in the fishing industry. The housemaid Angelique (Eva Green) has an affair with him but when she desires his love he says that is impossible. Unknown to him, she is a witch and she turns him into a vampire and subsequently leaves him buried alive… er, undead… for two centuries. After this prologue we go to 1972 Collinsport, where the Collins family is still under a curse and the town business has been taken over by the supposed descendent of Angelique (who is really the witch herself).
The metal coffin containing Barnabas is uncovered and soon he is part of the family: matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), wastrel brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), her daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz), and Roger’s son David (Gulliver McGrath), who is haunted by the ghost of his late mother. Also on hand is a drunken psychiatrist (Helena Bonham Carter) who is supposedly treating David, and Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), the new nanny and the seeming reincarnation of Barnabas’s true love Josette, whom Angelique bewitched and sent to her death.
This might seem ripe for spoofing. There are some laughs, many of them from the film playing off its 1972 setting, including an appearance by rock star Alice Cooper as a digitally age-regressed version of himself. While this is a film with a great oldies soundtrack, Burton restrains himself for a change, letting the moody atmospherics and raw emotions have center stage. In that sense, this may be one of his most controlled films since “Edward Scissorhands.” Depp is true to the spirit of the original Barnabas in playing him as tortured and lovelorn, the reluctant vampire who would trade his immortality for the return of his true love. (Several original cast members, including the late Jonathan Frid who originated Barnabas, appear in the party scene.)
The only one who is really over-the-top – because that’s what the part calls for – is the luscious Eva Green. Denied the only lover she ever wanted, her Angelique has wreaked vengeance on the Collins family for two centuries with no end in sight. The big love scene between Barnabas and Angelique is positively feral with their pent-up desire being unleashed, revealing much about their characters.
As with “Sweeney Todd,” it seems that the source material for “Dark Shadows” was the perfect inspiration for both Burton and Depp to take something with a strong pre-existing structure and adapt it for their own purposes. The result is something that will delight and surprise fans wondering if both of them had already done their best work in the past, and gives one hope for a summer movie season that is just getting underway.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.