Vampires and Tim Burton seem like such as natural fit. It’s curious that it has taken this long for him to direct a movie in which a bloodsucker is given center stage. Now’s as good a time as any though, since the current vampire craze is apparently here to stay. Burton derives his latest theatrical outing from “Dark Shadows,” the Gothic soap opera that aired on ABC from 1966 to 1971. Where that show was essentially a drama, Burton’s take on the material is in the comedic vein of “Beetlejuice.” How interesting that between “21 Jump Street” and now “Dark Shadows” there have been two humorous re-imaginings of old television dramas in just a couple months. The fact that Johnny Depp stars in both films is further coincidental.
Where Depp was merely permitted a cameo in “21 Jump Street,” he is given top billing in “Dark Shadows.” He plays Barnabas Collins, the wealthy member of the thriving Collins family, who own pretty much everything in Collinsport, Maine. When Barnabas breaks the heart of Angelique Bouchard, a witch played by Eva Green, she curses him to spend the rest of eternity as a vampire. The townsfolk turn on Barnabas and bury him alive. Barnabas is released almost two centuries later to find that the year is 1972. Upon seeing a McDonald’s sign glowing in the nightlight, it occurs to Barnabas that the world has undergone some horrific changes.
Depp is perfectly suited to play Barnabas, who hysterically struggles with the reality of not only being a vampire, but also living in a foreign timeframe. Even when he is placed in the most humorous of circumstances, like brushing his fangs or sleeping upside-down in a bed, Depp never cracks a smile or breaks character. “Dark Shadows” could run the risk of repeating the same joke as normal people react to Barnabas’ bizarre behavior. What makes “Dark Shadows” so much fun though is that it’s not just a fish out of water story. Where Barnabas may seem like an oddball, the supporting characters that surround him are every bit as dysfunctional and strange.
The remaining Collins family is led by Michelle Pfeiffer as Elizabeth, a greedy matriarch who struggles to keep her once prospering family afloat. Elizabeth employs the help of the alcoholic Dr. Julia Hoffman, hysterically played by Helena Bonham Carter, to treat her nephew David Collins, who claims to be seeing the ghost of his dead mother. Chloe Grace Moretz is great as always as Carolyn, the rebellious teenage daughter whom Barnabas interprets as a hooker. Then there’s Jackie Earle Haley, the go-to character actor when Steve Buscemi isn’t available, as the slothful caretaker of the Collins mansion.
The most entertaining performance of all comes from Eva Green as Angelique, who is still thriving with beauty since Barnabas last saw her. She plans to seduce Barnabas back into her clutches using magic and sexuality. This amounts to one of the funniest sex scenes ever put on film, which was deeply missed in “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn.”
If there’s a weak link in this lineup of excellent characters, it’s a young governess named Victoria, played by Bella Heathcote. To be fair, Heathcote does give a very likable performance and might have a promising career ahead of her. But the character is underdeveloped and not given enough screen time to bloom. This wouldn’t be as big of a deal if the film didn’t depict Victoria as a love interest for Barnabas, who really has more chemistry with Angelique.
On the whole, “Dark Shadows” is a constantly enjoyable dark comedy that relishes in Burton’s trademark demented sense of humor and marvelous production values. At times the film can feel more like a series of moments than a flowing narrative. These moments provide so many wicked laughs and whimsy though, that this is easy to overlook. The only part when the film lags is in the final act in which an action climax overstays its welcome and delivers a few twists that come out of nowhere. Other than that, “Dark Shadows” is a bloody good time that’s fortunately deprived of any sparkling vampires.
• Ahwatukee native and Desert Vista graduate Nick Spake is a student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for five years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.