Few films succeed with the tag ‘horror comedy,’ but Tim Burton’s DARK SHADOWS has little difficulty fitting this description. The action thriller stars Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green and Helena Bonham Carter (Burton’s wife/muse).
The film opens with some background into how Barnabas Collins (Depp) loses both parents to in what he suspects is a murder. He becomes obsessed with getting to the root of their ‘murder’ and dabbles into black magic in the process. The Collinsport community do not believe his claims and begin to suspect that perhaps Barnabas has a few screws loose. While trying to unravel the mystery behind his parents’ death, he falls in love with and starts to court Josette du Pres.
Unfortunately, by loving her, he scorns his ex-flame Angelique Bouchard, who alas is a witch. Deeply hurt by Barnabas’s act, Angelique casts a spell on the couple. Josette is possessed and hypnotised into jumping off Widows’ Hill. In a moment possibly inspired by Romeo and Juliet, Barnabas decides to follow his love off the cliff. He does not die and discovers much to his chagrin, that Angelique has cursed him by transforming him into a vampire. She sets the rest of Collinsport – who already think him mad anyway – against Barnabas and he is buried alive in a steel coffin.
Fast forward to 1972, almost 200 years after Barnabas premature interment and we see the arrival of Victoria (Bella Heathcote) to take up the role of governess at the once-glorious Collins mansion. Her call is to care for the young David Collins (Gulliver McGrath), who receives visitations from his late mother, who died in a mysterious accident at sea. Bonham Carter plays Dr Hoffman, the child’s psychologist who has bloodsucking ambitions of her own.
Barnabas’ restless two-century long sleep is soon disturbed when construction work begins on his grave. He leaps out of the coffin and with sincere apology relating to his 200-year hunger for blood, he eats up every construction worker available. Onward to the Collins villa, but in-between he has to grapple with the changes that have occurred while he was sleeping. Car lights convince him the devil has finally come for him and he stares curiously at people and cars at a gas station. The Swinging Seventies is so not the time for such a re-awakening, but Barnabas reaches the Mansion successfully and is re-acquainted with his new family. It is not that easy though as he has to prove himself to the family matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Pfeiffer) who has had to deal with a number of impostors and impersonators over the years. Not even the striking familiarity between the actual Barnabas and his family portrait can convince her easily.
But Barnabas eventually proves his identity and reveals a cache of wealth that revives the Collinses’ floundering fisheries business. Both are however sworn to secrecy about Barnabas’s other persona.
Not everyone is happy about the sudden revival of the Collins family business though. Angel Bay (Green), who is the Collinses’ only competition will use every means available to her to bring down Barnabas and the rest of his family. Like the witch with a grudge from centuries ago, Angel sets Barnabas up for another public disgrace and masterminds numerous tragedies that befall the Collins family.
Particular twists in Burton’s DARK SHADOWS come as no surprise; neither does the final act that seals the renewed love between Barnabas and Victoria. Everyone knows that vampires are immortal, so when a particular bloodsucker is ‘killed’ and dumped in the sea, it is easy to conclude ‘that’s not all, folks.’
Burton has proved himself with his body of work, especially those featuring Depp and Carter. A keen observer will notice many throwbacks to films like Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rebecca’ (the burning mansion at the ends is largely reminiscent of Mandalay.) Burton does no less with DARK SHADOWS even if many are tired of his collaborations with his wife and friend. The production design by Rick Heinrichs creates a perfect world for the fantastic and realistic action to unfold with superb visuals that keep one interested in the action.
Pfeiffer’s take on her role makes one wonder why she has had a lull in acting offers. The young actors are a delight to watch, mostly the young Carolyn (Chloe Moretz) who recommends that the family organise a happening instead of an out-moded ball. Depp is excellent as Barnabas Collins and Green as Angel Bay redeems herself in my view following her not-exactly stunning turn as a Bond girl in CASINO ROYALE.
What I like most about DARK SHADOWS is the cameo performance from old rocker Alice Cooper, whom Barnabas constantly referred to as a woman. The film puts songs by Barry White, Elton John, The Carpenters, The Moody Blues and many other 70s hits to good use.
Many might have a problem with some of the lines though and the fact that there is a noticeable difference between the film and the TV series that it is based on. It is to Burton’s credit though that his vampire is believable as a hero or as a villain. Barnabas would have been less realistic if he found an alternative to killing people for their blood. Burton is allowed his artistic discretion and if there will be a sequel, I’ll most definitely see it.