If you are part of Tim Burton’s cult following, then there are certain expectations that you’re going to have when watching Dark Shadows. And it delivers on most fronts. The film is quirky, there’s an entire cast of off-beat characters, the set designs are a visual banquet and the 70s context ties it all together with a hedonic classic rock soundtrack, interspersed hippies and shag wagons for those with original Woodstock nostalgia.
The narrative, however, couldn’t be more fragmented – even if Burton himself had given the script to Edward Scissorhands for a quick read-through. But that’s what happens when you try and compress 1 225 episodes into a 113 minute film. That’s because Dark Shadows is actually Burton’s tribute to the Dark Shadows television series that aired on ABC in the USA from 1966 to 1971, which was a revolutionary concept at the time that first introduced fantasy characters, such as werewolves, vampires and witches, to daytime programming.
The story follows the life, or lack thereof, of Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), a family-bound heir who rejects the love of his servant, Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), who turns out to be a witch. And witches, as folklore goes, don’t take too well to rejection. So Angelique goes on a rampage, killing Barnabas’ parents, lover and finally turning Barnabas into a vampire and burying him in an iron coffin for roughly 200 years. There’s nothing quite like a woman scorned, especially when she possesses magical powers. Now Barnabas is back and returns to his family’s mansion (Collinwood) to find it derelict and inhabited by the dysfunctional descendants of the Collins’ bloodline.
Depp, as always, delivers a superb performance as an eighteenth century man trying to get to grips with the 70s, and carries most of the comedic weight of the film, while the sensuous Green ensures that, whatever your sexual preference might be, it’s aimed squarely in her direction. It’s also a pleasure to see Michelle Pfeiffer, as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, in a dark and assertive role reminiscent of her performance in Stardust. But mention has to be made of Helena Bonham Carter, who plays the in-house psychologist, Dr Julia Hoffman. With oddly-shaped breasts, a slightly pudgy silhouette, flaming ginger hair and an always-present glass of whiskey in hand, she manages to be just the right combination of retro-drunk and doctor, leaving you wishing the psychotic alcoholic featured more in her subplot with Barnabas.
This is the problem with Dark Shadows. There’s either too little or too much. And just as you’re getting comfortable side characters start popping in and out of the story. Barnabas’ love interest, Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), for example, randomly reveals her entire backstory at the end of the film which completely disorientates you because she has barely been present in the last 40 minutes. Dark Shadows sacrifices a cohesive narrative for Burton’s aesthetic. However oddly satisfying his vision might be, Dark Shadows is probably best left as a rental than a night out.