It should have been a musical. Dark Shadows would have been the campest, kitschest, funniest musical since the Rocky Horror Picture Show. It would have spawned legions of cult fans. Instead we have a film that can’t decide if it’s a comedy or a homage to German expressionism.
Based on the 1960s TV show, Dark Shadows, directed by Tim Burton, is the story of a 19th century vampire who wakes up in 1972 and pays a visit to his family. Barnabas Collins, played by Johnny Depp, is appalled when he finds the family business in ruins at the hands of a local witch. With his contemporary descendants and some vampire tricks, he reinvigorates the local business. But the witch ain’t happy.
It’s these interactions of the old vampire with the new world that are most entertaining. There’s a great scene where Barnabas Collins sits down in a hippy circle and starts quoting Love Story. Or his hilarious encounter with the golden arches. For the first half of the film, these interactions provide some fantastic laughs. But the film loses its way when it stops making jokes.
Dark Shadows is difficult to categorise. It doesn’t know what sort of film it wants to be. The starting comic elements gradually slow down, until the conclusion loses the humor completely. It works best as a camp romp, with secret macrame rooms and ridiculous sex scenes. When it’s funny, it’s a brilliant film.
The story feels rushed; some characters have very little development, or their backstory is thrown in as an aside. Vicki, the vampire’s love interest, isn’t convincing in her affections for Barnabas. Burton jumps straight into the declaration of love without any scenes to assure us of their attraction to one another. All it would take is one extra scene, a touch or a smart piece of banter. The whole film suffers from this “by the way” narrative technique.
Depp’s comedic spark propels the film through the first two thirds of the film. On an aside, apparently there’s a Hollywood conspiracy that Johnny Depp is a vampire in real life. I had been wondering why he never seems to age in film and now I have a perfectly logical reason. My co-viewer suggested that perhaps he has had plastic surgery, but I am more inclined to believe the vampire theory.
Michelle Pfeiffer is miscast in her role as Elizabeth Collins; there’s no warmth of affection for her children in her performance. She’s very bad in this film, I mean, practically awful, almost like she’s replaying the evil mother from Hairspray in a vampire film. Pfeiffer should have swapped roles with the in house psychiatrist, played by Helena Bonham Carter in a shocking orange wig. Bella Heathcote plays Vicki, the doe-eyed beauty who wanders around pointing her big doe eyes at everyone. Only Chloe Moretz brings some real spunk to her role, playing T-Rex records in a 19th century dining room.
Visually the film is stunning. Tim Burton’s attention to detail is evident in every shot of the film. His background as a designer lends itself to the sumptuous worlds of the Maine fishing town, as well as the kooky characters that inhabit it. The costumes, designed by Colleen Atwood, are not overly 70s camp, but complement the fantastic elements of the film. The porcelain skin of the witch is a unique and beautiful effect. Barnabas Collins’ makeup is reminiscent of the 1922 silent film Nosferatu, and the closing cinematography reinforces Burton’s tribute to German expressionism, a nostalgic, hazy scene in the water.
Danny Elfman’s soundtrack is not used effectively in the film. His compositions seem absent, where in other Burton films like Nightmare Before Christmas, Alice in Wonderland and of course, Edward Scissorhands, Elfman’s music became a character in the film. While this was a conscious decision by the director, I got to the end of the film without being aware of any music having played, apart from the brilliant use of 1970s songs.
Dark Shadows is one of those “if only” films. If only the script had gone through one more revision, if only they’d put some songs in it, if only they’d cast this person instead of that. I hate seeing potentially great films fall apart because of bad decisions. But Dark Shadows is just not camp enough for the vamps.