The film, which is directed by Tim Burton and stars Johnny Depp, is a remake of a 1960s gothic soap opera featuring vampires, werewolves, zombies and ghosts. The original show was serious in tone (think “Downton Abbey” with a touch of the supernatural), but the trailer for the film was more campy and silly (a fact that didn’t seem to sit too well with some fans of the TV series).
Somewhat surprisingly, the final film is actually a blend of the two styles, with some campy, “That ‘70s Show” type of humor, and also some moments of serious gothic drama.
The film follows the tale of the wealthy Collins family who move from England to America in the 1700s, constructing a grand mansion called Collinwood Manor. When young Barnabas Collins (played by Johnny Depp) rejects the love of a maid named Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), not realizing she’s actually a witch, Angelique vows to have revenge on the Collins family. She kills Barnabas’ parents and fiancée, and then turns Barnabas into a vampire and buries him alive.
Fast-forward to 1972, when Barnabas is inadvertently freed from his coffin by some construction workers. He returns to Collinwood Manor, only to discover the Collins family, headed by matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), has since fallen into ruin, and Angelique Bouchard is now the town’s most beloved citizen. His return helps to rally the rather dysfunctional Collins family into making a comeback, and he also manages to catch the eye of the family’s governess, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Barnabas’ long-lost fiancée. Naturally, Angelique is not pleased with this turn of events, and the film concludes with a showdown between the Collins family and the witch.
The best part of the film is Johnny Depp, who is both tragic and charming as the vampire Barnabas Collins. Although several of Depp’s most recent characters (such as Willy Wonka and the Mad Hatter from “Alice in Wonderland”) have been rather eccentric, over-the-top portrayals, his turn as Barnabas is more of an understated performance. Barnabas Collins is a genteel nobleman thrust into an unfamiliar era, and he struggles to adapt to a world he knows nothing about. It’s like sticking a character from a Jane Austen novel inside an episode of “That ‘70s Show.” Depp makes Barnabas very sweet and likable, and he truly draws you into his performance.
Other standouts in the cast include Eva Green, who is obviously having a great deal of fun as the scheming witch Angelique; Helena Bonham Carter as the Collins’ psychiatrist, who has more problems than the family she’s trying to help; and Bella Heathcote as the lonely governess Victoria Winters. There’s also some cameos from cast members from the original TV show, and a humorous appearance by Alice Cooper at the family’s grand ball.
The main issue critics seem to have with the film is that Burton perhaps tries too hard to make the film both a gothic drama and a comedy, and to please a general audience and fans of the original show. One moment there will be something funny (such as Barnabas encountering a car or a lava lamp for the first time), and then the next there will be something very serious (such as Victoria’s story about how her parents rejected her and sent her away to be locked up in a mental hospital). There’s not always a smooth transition between the two. I also thought Jonny Lee Miller was under-used as Roger Collins, Elizabeth’s brother, as was Jackie Earle Haley as Willie Loomis, the manor’s caretaker.
So, the bottom line is, did I walk out of the theater feeling as excited by “Dark Shadows” as I was by “The Avengers” last weekend? The answer is no. Yet even though “Dark Shadows” isn’t quite dazzling, I still found it to be charming, quirky and fun. It’s worth seeing, especially if you’re a long-time fan of Johnny Depp.