To understand Dark Shadows, you have to understand the source material: it's not the fact that it was made on the cheap, or that it was campy, or that it was about vampires and witches and such. It's that Dark Shadows was, first and foremost, a soap opera. A weird soap opera with witches and vampires made on the cheap that became high camp... but soap opera, nevertheless.
If something failed in transferring Dark Shadows to the screen, it appears to be the marketing department of Warner Brothers; which decided, probably out of nervousness, to sell the film as a Tim Burton dark comedy, anchored by yet another campy performance by our currnt superstar chameleon, Johnny Depp. As it turns out, that marketing error may well be costly for the WB, since Dark Shadows turns out to be one of a number of Depp-Burton combinations where a sweet, sad oddball strives to find a place of acceptance in an otherwise cruel world. Start with Edward Scissorhands... and work forward from there.
The amazing thing about Dark Shadows is how Burton manages to put his usual idiosyncratic stamp on the source material, without losing sight of what makes soap operas fundamentally work: the melodrama, the romances, the plight of characters stuck in personal dilemmas of their own making. Ultimately charming and generally satisfying, Dark Shadows is, in many ways, better than what its most ardent fans could have hoped to receive (and I, quite frankly, am not one of them). But people expecting a hoot-y campfest of seventies kitsch and vampy silliness may well be somewhat disappointed.
Dark Shadows opens with a long "origins" sequence for Barnabas Collins, a callow young man from England who travels with his family to Maine in the 1700's, becomes heir to a fishery fortune, and winds up becoming a vampire in his mid-twenties because of an angry witch, eventually hunted down and chained up in an iron casket. That casket is dug up in the early seventies by a contruction crew, and Barnabas hurtles back to life and back to Collinwood, his family's now rundown estate, to resume some semblance of a life. Or an afterlife.
At Collinwood he meets his descendants, Elizabeth and her brother Roger, and their children, along with a spooky new governess and a boozy psychiatrist, both on hand to help the Roger's son David, a weird child who has lost his mother. The governess, Victoria Winters, reminds Barnabas of his long lost fiancee, haunting him as he tries to rejuvenate the family's fortunes.
Barnabas is thwarted in his attempts by Anjelique, the witch who made him, who harbors a stalker-like attraction to him (that could never be fulfilled in the 1700s because she was the maid's daughter and he was lord of the manor), who now runs a competing fishery. The two struggle through various twists and turns until an over the top battle ensues at Collinwood, where many secrets are finally revealed.
Burton handles most of this with his usual wit, and sure handed storytelling, though there's a built-in "summer blockbuster"-ness that eventually overwhelms whatever remains of plausibility and good sense (much of the final fight sequence is just too much, and Barnabas and Anjelique's otherwordly coupling to "My First, My Last, My Everything" is largely trite and obvious). But even so, the grand guignol touches do hark back to the original show too, which tried too hard, often, to do too much on limited resources and limited good sense. And in spite of itself, as with the original, Dark Shadows works best because it is, often, genuinely moving, a reminder that Burton, aided by Depp's layered acting, can illuminate the sensitive side of even the oddest of oddballs.
Depp's Barnabas is every bit what he claimed: a loving nod to Jonathan Frid, the original Barnabas, a lost soul (literally) who mourns the loss of his humanity and finds vampirism bewildering and often sad. Depp's homage is occasionally knocked off balance by dialogue that's pushing too hard for saucy irony (a riff on "balls" is just deadly weak), but he never loses sight of the character's base gentleness and remaining shreds of human decency. A number of current vampire players (Robert Pattinson, surely, and even Paul Wesley on Vampire Diaries) could stand to take note.
Burton has also surrounded Depp with a string of strong players doing some remarkably good work. I'd forgotten the range and subtlety of Michelle Pfeiffer, but her strong good looks (especially now as she's aged into them) and sensitive acting were made for a soap lead actress, and she gives Elizabeth class and panache. Helena Bonham-Carter, too, rediscovers some of her own subtle skills that seemed absent in recent turns (especially Harry Potter and the Red Queen in Alice), giving "Boozy Jaded Bitch" a fresh spin and an underlying sense of unfulfillment. The kids are charming. Bella Heathcote as Victoria Winters may not be quite as charismatic as the original role (a memorable soap heroine), but there's a lot going on in her performance, still. And Eva Green manages to keep Anjelique from devolving into a one note shrill siren song, at least until the final ten minutes. Even Jackie Earle Hailey has a nice turn as the family servant, and poor Jonny Lee Miller simply has too little to do.
Visually, the film is a seventies feast, topped off with a fresh eye to the gothic architecture of classic horror films (gargoyles and wooden carvings have rarely seemed so present, and so necessary). I don't think I've always love Colleen Atwood's costumes, but here she comes through strongly, representing a number of different aspects of seventies dressing without resorting to cartoon or complete heinousness (Depp's modern dress for Barnabas is especially nicely thought through, reflecting the era's fascination with military coats and foppish shirting, nodding to his past without completely stranding him in his present). The scoring is surprisingly inventive, making good use of even the hoariest seventies musical references. The cinematography too, is generally first rate.
Dark Shadows is one more example to the generation of Twi-Hards that it's Twilight that really lets the vamp genre down, not its predecessors and current competitors. Even Burton and Depp can rescue a camp-fest like Dark Shadows, and find more heart, and human soul, in the vampire story than Twilight's lumpy Edward can seem to even dream. It's a shame, then, that Dark Shadows will probably get blamed for not living to a bad ad campaign that misrepresents its true nature, and hides its best qualities. Barnabas, at least, would know how to extract some justice.