Darker and Better Than Expected: Steve Recommends Dark Shadows

When I was young all activity in our neighborhood would come to a halt at 3:00. It was time for Dark Shadows, so all of us kids would head for the nearest television. Occasionally, we would play the parts, with me as Barnabas, my brother as Quentin, and the other kids in various other roles. We even thought about putting on a theater production, but we were unable to come up with an adequate storyline. With those fond memories in place, I was excited when I heard that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp were teaming up again to make a movie version of Dark Shadows. My enthusiasm was tempered a bit by the fact that I was among those who thought that their Alice in Wonderland was far less than wonderful. Then came the trailers that made it look as though their movie would simply be a spoof of the original series, filled with predictable fish-out-of-water situations and tired ’70’s jokes when Barnabas is freed from his coffin in 1972 after being imprisoned for nearly 200 years. Next, there was the onslaught of lukewarm reviews, by critics and fans alike, many complaining that Burton/Depp had as big a problem coming up with an adequate story as we did as kids planning our theater production. I was about ready to forgo seeing the movie on the big screen, waiting instead for its release on DVD. But, a small voice told me to give it a chance, and I’m glad that I did. It’s not a great movie, but my 15-year-old son (who had no prior knowledge of Dark Shadows) and I still had a great time.

Many of those with prior knowledge of the cult series seem upset that the movie doesn’t pay due respect to its predecessor. Sure, the show provided a fair share of gothic horror meat, but that was always served with an ample amount of cheese. I think I even realized that as a kid. The show was scary (for a young kid anyway), but it was also somewhat ridiculous and it was that combination that made it so much fun. I thought that Burton/Depp did a good job of capturing that combination in the movie and in that way they did stay true to their source material. However, that combination has led to complaints that they didn’t know what kind of movie to make. Was it a gothic horror story? Was it a camp comedy spoof? It is some of both, but that worked for me. The movie is actually darker in tone than the trailers would lead you to believe. The opening portion that tells the back story of how Barnabas became a vampire and ended up in the coffin has a gothic feel to it. It is no surprise that Burton gives this part of the movie a wonderful look. The purists may have preferred that the entire movie maintain that feel, but I’m not sure that would have made it a better movie. I enjoyed the humor. Some of it was corny. Some of it was stale. But there were plenty of good laughs.

That being said, it needs to be mentioned that the PG-13 rating should be taken seriously. This is not a movie for younger children. There is darkness in Dark Shadows. Barnabas is a vampire after all. The bloodletting isn’t as graphic as in Sweeny Todd, but it is there. There is also a somewhat surprising amount of sexual innuendo, so beware of your tolerance level there. Younger kids probably wouldn’t pick up on it, but it is quite evident. I personally felt that the oral sex encounter between Barnabas and Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bohnam Carter) was inappropriate for this movie. Nothing was shown, but the intention was clear.

Aside from that, there were many more things I liked about this movie than I disliked. As I said previously, Burton gave the movie a great look and fortunately didn’t go overboard with the ’70’s stuff. Depp gave some depth to the internal conflicts that Barnabas faced. It wasn’t a knockout performance. We’ve seen him play this kind of role before, but it was satisfying nonetheless. The rest of the cast was solid. Eva Green brought a sultry edge to the role of Angelique. Be careful if you cross this woman. She is a witch! Michelle Pfeiffer was fine as Elizabeth. I always enjoy seeing Chloe Grace Moretz, such a marvelous young actress. It was fun seeing Jackie Earle Haley as Willie. It brought back memories of seeing him as a young actor in The Bad News Bears in 1976! Helena Bohnam Carter brought a slightly different feel to her role than usual, but unfortunately she wasn’t given much to work with. I though her role, along with that of Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller) were not written particularly well. One of the highlights for me was the cameo by Alice Cooper. They even made him look reasonably young. I recently had front row seats at a concert and I can tell you that up close he looks his age (64), but he still puts on a great show so see him if you get the chance. His two songs (“No More Mr. Nice Guy”, “The Ballad of Dwight Fry”) fit in well here, as did the other ’70’s songs used throughout the movie.

For the most part, Dark Shadows is fun, frivolous entertainment, but there were a couple of themes that are worth thinking about. The first is the importance of family. Early on Barnabas’ father tells him that family is more important than money and that theme remains an undercurrent throughout the movie. The other theme to ponder is the nature of love. Angelique claims to love Barnabas, but then curses him when she doesn’t get her way. Is that love? The movie also brings back that age-old question: does love mean never having to say you’re sorry. Actually, the love theme could have been highlighted more with greater attention given to the relationship between Barnabas and Victoria, but so be it. All in all, an enjoyable movie.