Hoberman: Wit Lurks in Tim Burton’s Enigmatic “Dark Shadows”

Hoberman: Wit Lurks in Tim Burton’s Enigmatic “Dark Shadows”
Delivering his lines with grandiloquent confidence of a Shakespearean ham: Depp, as Barnabas Collins, in "Dark Shadows."
(Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture)

Over the past two decades, Tim Burton has cast Johnny Depp as a succession of Anglo-American archetypes: Ed Wood, Ichabod Crane, Willy Wonka (an interpretation many thought inspired by Anna Wintour), Sweeney Todd, the Mad Hatter, and now Barnabas Collins, the reluctant vampire hero of the beloved TV soap opera “Dark Shadows” (ABC, 1966-71), lavishly revisited, although not in 3D, by Burton.

Thanks to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” juggernaut, Depp has been the most bankable Hollywood star of the late aughts and early teens (ranked first, second, or third in the Quigley exhibitors poll every year since 2005) and with good reason. In his way, this preternaturally smooth-faced 48-year-old is as suavely unflappable as Cary Grant — and he’s had to handle far more ludicrous dialogue than Grant ever did. Burton’s gentleman vampire, returned to his ancestral New England mansion after two centuries in the grave, looks like a combination of Dr. Caligari’s somnambulist and late Michael Jackson but, even more importantly, he can deliver his lines with grandiloquent confidence of a Shakespearean ham.   

The original “Dark Shadows” was a mildly spooky gothic soap when, in mid-1967, show-runner Dan Curtis decided to add a lovesick vampire to the mix. Barnabas Collins (played by Jonathan Frid) was the original ambivalent, introspective bloodsucker, anticipating both Anne Rice and the “Twilight” series. Galvanizing the audience, Frid became an improbable sex object and the show, whose run coincided more or less with the High Sixties, was an afterschool favorite for late-born baby boomers — extensively merchandised for kids and housewives alike with board games, Halloween costumes, LPs, bubblegum cards, comic books, and paperback novels.

Like its near tele-contemporary “Star Trek”, if not to the same degree, “Dark Shadows” would live on for decades in the undead realm of fanzines, conventions, and video reissues. The show was briefly resurrected in early 1991 but Burton’s version, from a script by Seth Grahame-Smith (best-selling author of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”) drawing on the two early ‘70s “Dark Shadows” movies, “House of Dark Shadows” and even the much maligned, de-vampired “Night of Dark Shadows,” is the first to give this underleveraged material full-blown epic treatment.

At the very least the original has not been embalmed. “Dark Shadows” is often quite witty, particularly in its details and casting. Hammer Drac Christopher Lee has a cameo, Cat Lady Michelle Pfeiffer looks splendid as a Collins descendent, and Burton axiom Helena Bonham Carter is, per usual, a pip, as the resident mad doctor. The prize conceit, however, was the decision to set the movie in 1972, just after the TV show ended its run. It’s highly entertaining to see the early ‘70s as Rip Van Barnabas’s future (he’s spooked by a troll doll, fascinated by a lava lamp, dumbfounded by the Carpenters). The time frame enables Burton to make excellent use of classic rock chestnuts like “Nights in White Satin,” “Season of the Witch,” and “The Joker” (which Depp sonorously recites to his lost Lenore, Australian dolly bird Bella Heathcote). There are hippies in the woods around Collinwood Manor and, like the movie, Barnabas feasts on them — after first quoting Eric Segal.

Were Burton content to suck the blood of “Austin Powers,” “Dark Shadows” might have been, as, snapping shut her smart phone, the woman seated next to me at the All-Media exclaimed to her friends, “the best movie I’ve seen all year!” I fear she spoke too soon. Sad to report, the Burton opus is an unnecessarily complicated tale involving too many characters (the Addams Family plus the Munsters), not to mention an unresolved moral conundrum that has us happily rooting for an unapologetic mass serial killer — and perhaps lusting after the evil baggage (Eva Green) he unaccountably jilts (twice).

The addition of this eternally young wicked witch plays havoc with the already problematic rules of the vampire universe which may be why, after an hour or more of fun, all pretense of logic is overwhelmed in the clamor of digital sturm und drang. Still, the bucket of blood is at least half full. Depp’s outfit aside, “Dark Shadows” wouldn’t add much to the Burton chachka show that packed the Museum of Modern Art two years ago, but it’s something only Burton could do.

Read more J. Hoberman in Movie Journal