Director: Tim Burton
By Roderick Heath
Dark Shadows, a cultishly remembered, increasingly perverse take on the daytime soap opera, presented through a prism of increasingly outlandish gothic tropes, debuted in 1966, but did not gain its true notoriety until it introduced vampiric antihero Barnabas Collins a year into its run. Decades before Anne Rice and Twilight began to make such figures seem commonplace, the show helped make the link between the Byronic romantic and the undead prince, already lurking in some of Dracula’s on-screen incarnations, suddenly solid. I’ve seen little of Dan Curtis’ original TV series, sadly, though I’m a lifelong devotee of Curtis’ subsequent series The Night Stalker (1973-1974). A spin-off movie, House of Dark Shadows (1970), made in the wake of the show’s cancellation, had an air of bare-boned sufficiency. So I’m no real judge of Dark Shadows a la Tim Burton as a tribute to, or send-up of, this original entity. What I can speak of is Burton himself.
Burton’s career since 2000 has been held in increasing disdain by many critics and fans, even as his box office touch has been growing surer thanks to his editions of popular properties carefully made over with a veneer of Burton touches. That disdain is partly deserved: there is no hell hot enough for his hacky remake of Planet of the Apes (2001), I could not fake an interest in his version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), and whilst I found the near-universal negativity turned on his Alice in Wonderland (2010) more than a little hyperbolic—if nothing else, it had muse Helena Bonham Carter’s gleeful Red Queen to offer—it was still clearly a long way from the man’s most inspired work, and redolent of a once-unruly wit tailored into a franchise. On the other hand, Big Fish (2003) and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), near-great films, and Corpse Bride (2005), a fine-wrought bon-bon, deserved no such censure, and merely confirms something obvious from Burton’s whole career—that he was always an uneven talent.
Burton’s general refusal to entirely abandon his sense of cinema as a mere fancy version of a children’s dress-up party, mixed with a Goth rock-and-roll bash and usually realised through leading man Johnny Depp’s variations on a theme of pasty weirdos, is both a strength and a weakness. Its strength is in opposition to the times, where the false verisimilitude of CGI, the rise of self-serious blockbuster auteurs like Christopher Nolan, and an attendant cut-to-the-chase cynicism amongst lesser luminaries, defines big-budget cinema: Burton has embraced CGI, but in a fashion that uses it as merely another prop in his magic lantern shows. Its weakness is that it could be said to be holding him back from growing artistically, although lingering anger for the failure of Big Fish, his most overtly personal and felt film since Ed Wood (1994), might also be involved.
Dark Shadows, on the back of a trailer whose emphasis on its comic elements made many nervous, also seems to have met with a lot of lingering resentment for how much money Alice made in spite of the opprobrium. But whilst it’s not a flawless film and shows distinct signs of having been awkwardly trimmed in the editing room, it’s also Burton’s most playful work since 1996’s Mars Attacks, his antic streak slipping the leash and making the most of Seth Grahame-Smith’s screenplay as a delicious survey of retro camp, and his own undying desire to both laugh at and indulge the frisson welling from a morbidly sensual sensibility. It’s nigh-on impossible to construct a cult artefact in the context of modern Hollywood’s highest spheres, and yet that’s what Dark Shadows actually feels like. Had it been made, production techniques and budgetary differences notwithstanding, in the time it was set, it would have stood a good chance of standing up with other oddball by-products of the era’s wayward impulses, like Bava’s Danger: Diabolik! (1966), Corman’s The Raven (1963), Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), or Losey’s Modesty Blaise (1966). Dark Shadows overflows with ideas and images that reveal Burton as anything but creatively exhausted: rather, it’s such a freaky surplus that it threatens at points to fly apart.
Burton’s film, like House of Dark Shadows, places Barnabas front and centre. Unlike most of Depp’s other Burton-directed characterisations of socially maladjusted misfits, Barnabas is superficially a commanding figure, albeit one rendered a misfit by dint not only of being a vampire, but also by dislocation in time. Barnabas was the respected scion of the successful émigré Collins clan, who set up a fishing business in New England in the 1700s in a town that came to be known as Collinsport, but who had, alas, a witch in their midst. Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) worked as a servant in the Collins’ mansion and became Barnabas’ lover. When he spurned her and fell in love with local lass Josette DuPres (Bella Heathcote), Angelique began a campaign of terror and revenge on the family, killing Barnabas’ parents, driving Josette to suicide, and cursing Barnabas to his undead state. She then raised the locals to bury him alive as a monster, chained in a coffin and forgotten, until accidentally disinterred in 1972 by construction workers, all of whom Barnabas apologetically slaughters in his frantic hunger.
Barnabas makes his way to the mansion, takes control of servant Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley), and discovers what’s left of the clan living in waned, penurious isolation. Matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) tries to hold things together whilst ignoring the preternatural strangeness of her surrounding kin, including insouciant teen Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz) and her ghost-seeing younger brother David (Gulliver McGrath), both damaged by the premature death of their mother in a boating accident, and their emasculated, petty thief of a father, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller). The clan also houses David’s alcoholic, live-in psychiatrist, Dr Julia Hoffman (Carter), and new nanny Victoria Winters (Heathcote again), on the run from something and residing under an alias. She soon proves, like David, to be able to see roaming ghosts in the castle, warning of Barnabas’ return and the lurking evil that threatens the clan.
Dark Shadows, like scattered forebears, running from The Cat and the Canary (1927) through to The Fearless Vampire Killers and Landis’ An American Werewolf in London (1981), doesn’t divide neatly between its gothic tributes and its satiric impulses. If it fails to match the nearly perfect balance of Sleepy Hollow (1999), it’s because unlike that film, Dark Shadows, as a TV adaptation, is forced to divide its attention between many competing elements, resulting in an occasionally diffuse narrative. The aforementioned signs of editing don’t help, though to a certain extent, they aid the evocations of the arbitrary twists prevalent in even the most upright soaps after a couple of decades have gone by, for example, when Carolyn leaps into a fray, suddenly sprouts hairs and claws, and snarls, “I’m a werewolf, okay, let’s not make a big deal of it!”
Burton can’t entirely deliver the film’s ripe eccentricity from mere plot, but whilst the rushed quality of the last third does somewhat lessen the impact of the film, the earlier parts dance nimbly between tones. Some touches delve into outright skit, like Barnabas trying to brush his teeth in a mirror or opening a secret chamber with impressively rumbly mechanisms, only to find Elizabeth uses it to store her macramé. But others retain a genuine impudence, as when Barnabas, a former student of the occult, recognises the 20th century equivalent to the emblem of Mephistopheles in the golden arches of a McDonald’s sign: the sign’s smaller wording, “9 Billion Served”, takes on a whole new meaning. One sublime gag sees Barnabas expounding his tale of woe to Elizabeth, with strains of eerie, melodramatic music rising—music that sounds like the score of, yes, a very early ’70s TV creepfest—only for these to prove to be programmed tracks rising from the electric organ he’s leaning on. It’s the sort of gag that’s impossible to properly describe, and can only be rendered by a clever filmmaker, managing to riff on several ideas at once: the pained hero making his confession in soap-opera style with appropriate accompaniment, provided by the modern equivalent of the compulsory organ that is the feature of any good vampire’s home.
The McDonald’s gag puts Dark Shadows back in touch, albeit blithely, with Burton’s once-strong satirical streak, as displayed in his early films like Beetlejuice (1987), Batman (1989), and Edward Scissorhands (1990), where a comedic but still potent anti-consumerist, anti-conformist spirit was nascent; Dark Shadows portrays a battle of ruthless capitalistic endeavour involving sabotage and mind control, espoused between a witch and vampire. There’s a pretty obvious, but thematically apt gag in how a baying mob is repeatedly led in a witch hunt by an actual witch, casting meaningful aspersions on those who whip up panics and their reasons. More unexpectedly, signs of Burton’s duskily elegiac romanticism, so powerful in Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish, and Batman Returns (1992), blend with hints of psychedelia throughout Dark Shadows. This quality rises in the opening with it swooping shots of stormy cliffs, thundering seas, and tragic lovers: Barnabas, who had tried to die with Josette as she hurled herself over a cliff under Angelique’s spells, instead picks himself out of the surf, contorting into a perverted being.
The romanticism quietens to a somnolent refrain, as the opening credits see Victoria making her way to her fateful rendezvous with the Collins household on a train with the sonorous fetishism of The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” overscoring the train’s passage through forested hills. Victoria is seen in the act of adopting a fake name from a ski lodge poster in the train. Rehearsing her introduction, she almost gives her name as Maggie Evans, an in-joke that gives away how she’s actually a compendium of two characters from the show. Victoria is the doll-eyed, seemingly demure yet quietly adamantine heroine Burton is often so fond of portraying, her self-containment overtly contrasting the flagrant strangeness that whirls about her. She has her own bleak background to contend with, one which comes across like a missing scene from last year’s Sucker Punch: clearly linked to Collinsport and Barnabas as the contemporary incarnation of Josette, she was, we learn, a psychic child whose speaking to ghosts was mistaken for madness, and she was hauled off, screaming and pleading, to an asylum where she grew up as a near-catatonic waif until the will to escape came to her.
Burton’s essential empathy is always with the weirdoes, as they become his heroes in the way they tend to keep an essential humanity burning inside of them even when circumstances seem most challenging—indeed, precisely because they must. Barnabas, upon being told by Victoria how her parents had her locked up and forgot her, speaks with stern judgement, “It is unforgivable. Your parents deserve to boil in Hell’s everlasting sulphur!” Burton’s villains are, by contrast, those who want to control others, or other weirdoes who surrender their humanity, like Danny DeVito’s twisted Penguin in Batman Returns, who screamed with epochal rage, “I am not a human being—I am an animal!” Similarly, whilst the prodigious force of nature that is Angelique, driven by class rage and sexual jealousy, attempts to bend all and sundry to her will, and most specifically Barnabas, he struggles to hold onto his humanity even as he has to kill people to survive. Whilst Angelique is the old figure of the woman like whom hell hath no fury, the fact that this is the time of women’s lib is repeatedly evoked. The film’s lone figure of traditional masculinity, Roger, is so pathetic and perfidious that Barnabas gives him a choice of absenting himself immediately with plentiful cash and leaving the children to his care, or staying and shaping up: Roger chooses the former, fleeing house and family, leaving all in the care of leonine Elizabeth and screwball Barnabas.
In spite of Depp’s foreground performance, the film fills up with archly iconic female characters. Burton’s usual fondness for unusual families and bizarrely lovable figures, and rejection of conservative norms, therefore finds a new accord with a distinctive sociopolitical shift. Dark Shadows becomes a film about the period in which it is set as well as a cut-up refashioning of its aesthetics. Nor is this the first time Burton has exercised such a notion—he managed to invoke it purely through the gradation in Sarah Jessica Parker’s performance in Ed Wood. In this context, as well as offering his alternative lifestyle energy, Barnabas becomes, in true soap opera style, something like the accidental fox in the henhouse, a love object more at the mercy of the women around him than not, sought by Victoria and Angelique. When he gives Hoffman a compliment, the love-starved psychiatrist promptly goes down on him. The psychiatrist tries to turn back the clock and restore her own youth by utilising Barnabas’ blood under the pretext of curing him, only to so anger him at the thought of her cheating him and placing another unruly monster in the household that he kills her and dumps her body in the harbour.
Barnabas’ family loyalty and identity give him purpose when his existence might otherwise have become a nihilistic nightmare. Burton allows a mood of queasy black humour/horror to punctuate the moments in which Barnabas’ monstrous side is let off its leash, slaughtering the construction workers and a clan of guileless hippies whom he fascinates with his trippy-seeming reminiscences and proclamations of the nature of mortality. “You tripped for 200 years?” one girl asks in spacy credulity in a scene that proceeds with broad comic kookiness until it reaches it nasty punchline when Barnabas regretfully sighs that now he has to kill all of them. Burton doesn’t go for an all-out juxtaposition of raw gore and humour, a la American Werewolf, but, more like Polanski, allows a genuinely morbid and malicious sensibility squirm just beneath the surface.
Barnabas, for the most part, remains a weirdly lovable creature chiefly in his mix of confidence and bewilderment, strutting into what’s left of his family fiefdom with a plan to save the clan from being swallowed up by its demons, and attempting to negotiate the modern wonders he encounters with bemused fascination. Confused by television enough to rip out the back of one at the sight of Karen Carpenter singing on it, trying to find her (“Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!”), he’s utterly taken with modern pop music, to the point where he recites the lyrics of Steve Miller’s “The Joker” with the arch solemnity of a Shakespeare soliloquy (“If only Shakespeare had been as eloquent!”), even if he doesn’t quite get the joke of Alice Cooper: “Ugliest woman I’ve ever seen,” he murmurs on close inspection. The correlation of specific, supernatural afflictions with character is constantly apt: David’s ghost-communicating evokes the distracted state of a melancholy preadolescent, whilst Carolyn’s secret lycanthropy fits perfectly with her grouchy, protean, onanistic eruption into puberty, and Angelique’s witchery simply inflates the mesmeric grip of her sensual powers and ruthless obsession.
Dark Shadows, in fact, plays with its musical cues with a sense of intricacy that moves well beyond mere sarcastic incongruity, suggesting instead a nongenre follow-up to Sweeney Todd, whilst trying to weave the pop motifs of the era into the film’s structure to give a slippery substance to the film’s understanding of the changing social landscape already mentioned. The invasive spirit of rock and pop, and the indulgent perversity of the heroes, are correlated, possessing dangerous and frightening, yet also empowering, forces. A major montage of Barnabas’ efforts to rebuild the family fortunes is scored to the Carpenters’ “Top of the World,” its effervescent ebullience both at odds with the strangeness of Barnabas and his enterprise but also according with his ingenuous determination, even optimism, and recalling the “By The Sea” number in Sweeney Todd. Earlier, Moretz’s lupine Carolyn gyrates in a trancelike, sensually protean fashion to Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” whilst the family sit down to an edgy, uncomfortable meal with their new nanny: Roger so uptight under his thinning blonde quaff like a starched shirt holding to a man’s shape without a real body to hold it up, Hoffman lurching in with tipsy grande dame demonstrations, and David attempting to deliver Victoria a welcoming fright swathed in a sheet. The sense of intimate family tension at a nexus and the use of the Donovan song put me in mind of George Romero’s Season of the Witch (1971), which likewise invoked the onset of feminism in the context of a spiralling fascination for the stygian underworld.
The film’s best, most intricately woven sequence comes when Barnabas decides to throw a ball: “They’re called Happenings these days,” Carolyn informs him, and, in listing the things he’ll need, she adds, mockingly, “Alice Cooper.” Barnabas, whilst not realising the essence of the gender-bending joke, nonetheless actually does manage to hire Cooper for the party, through which Barnabas and Cooper strut in competition for the biggest, most entertaining freak. The vignettes here swing from the drolly comic—Hoffman experimentally bobbing her head to Cooper’s wailing strains, the ancient housekeeper reading a book oblivious to the thunderous rock—to the dreamy and the tragic. Burton uses the lava lamp that strikes Barnabas as a mystic totem as a visual motif, sliding past the camera in bobbing psychedelic brilliance as his camera shifts from stage to stage. He cuts from Carolyn providing the introduction for Cooper performing “Ballad of Dwight Fry” wrapped in a straitjacket, with Barnabas listening to Victoria’s recounting of her own history, glimpsed in flashback getting electroshock treatment and glaring out like a J-horror wraith under bedraggled hair, cocooned likewise in a straitjacket. The agile game played here with demarcations between different layers of performance and the invocation of genuine, transfiguring pain through its “fun” simulacrums is genuinely clever and invests the film with a real, off-kilter emotional resonance. Of course, Burton doesn’t push too hard towards perversity and explorations of adolescent trauma as the underpinning of eruptions of primal rage—more’s the pity, perhaps—in a film that maintains a largely frothy tone.
Still, one reason Dark Shadows works where his earlier franchise reinventions failed is because the material is obviously far, far closer to Burton’s heart. Where Sleepy Hollow gained spiritual cohesion from modelling itself on Hammer horror, Dark Shadows similarly adopts Roger Corman’s ’60s gothic works as the major point of reference, copying Corman’s tactic of splicing shots of waves crashing on rocks at every interval, allowing Depp to sport dark glasses borrowed from Vincent Price in The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), and having Depp and Pfeiffer roam the mysterious hidden passages of the Collins house in search of secreted treasure in a manner familiar from Pit and the Pendulum (1961). Other horror icons make the cut: Halloween’s (1978) vision of a real ghoul under a prankster’s sheet ghost costume is invoked, whilst Nosferatu—both Murnau’s and Herzog’s—comes to the fore as Depp buckles and twists unnaturally with his long, jagged fingernails, peers in on telephone conversers and rutting couples like a great bat, and rises stiff as a board from a coffin. Heathcote in vampiric form resembles Isabelle Adjani’s wasting heroine in Herzog’s film, whilst the finale’s twist strongly evokes Jean Rollin’s Lips of Blood (1975). Christopher Lee turns up for his compulsory cameo, playing an aged sea dog Barnabas hypnotises. Nor do the film’s stylistic reflexes and references stick to mere horror film pastiche: in a sequence in which Angelique harangues her board of well-trained males, she struts past a row of portraits, all of herself in different guises and styles over the passing last two centuries, like some undying edition of a Joan Crawford antiheroine.
Green, with her Barbara Steele smile and anime eyes, usually ennobles whatever she graces with her presence, but whilst she’s not always well-served by the story structure here, she nonetheless comes close to walking off with the whole film, moving through the proceedings with an arch sensuality and imperial prerogative blended with detectable lunacy, tearing about in a little red sports car and crashing the ball in a blood-hued glitter dress: never mind scarlet letters, she goes the whole nine yards. Her frustrated love-hate obsession with Barnabas pays off in a sequence with a mix of seduction, threat, and insult: tearing open her dress to show off her cosmos-shaking bosom to seduce Barnabas (“Oh!” he bleats in defeat, “I must admit, they have not aged a day…”), she finally cajoles him into a bout of spectacular hate-sex that sees them careening about the room in ecstatic destruction, reminiscent of the epic bedroom-trashing sex scene in The Tall Guy (1989), except in three dimensions, all scored to Barry White’s “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything.” A moment in Batman Returns where Pfeiffer’s Catwoman licked Batman’s latex-framed face recurs here as this time, Angelique caresses Barnabas’ snowy brow with her long, snaky tongue. Angelique is reminiscent of other New Age stygian temptresses, like Barbara Carrera in Love at Stake (1987) and Amanda Donohoe’s incarnation of sexy evil in Lair of the White Worm (1987), but by the end, there’s a distinct resemblance between Green’s increasingly unhinged, insanely grinning visage and that of Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the final stages of Batman.
It would be very wrong not to mention the brilliance of Bruno Delbonnel’s photography throughout Dark Shadows, rendering the milky hues and splashes of scarlet provided by the blood that daubs Barnabas’ face, the lipstick of Angelique, and coif of Hoffman, contrasting lushly with the blues and greys that fill most frames. The film’s finale gives in to fragmentation in tone and action, reaching its climax abruptly as if someone called time, and I can’t help but wonder how much material involving Carter, Haley, and Moretz hit the cutting room floor. The jerky pacing both helps and hinders the film’s spiralling into ecstatic nuttiness. Burton still pulls off a last coup as Angelique is defeated not by physical action but by the lingering spirit of maternal care that still lives in Collinwood. She lies prostrate, not mangled like a living person, but with her immaculately maintained two-century-old form now stove in and cracked as if she were actually a mannequin, a broken doll still transfixed by an obsessive need: she rips out her own heart and hands it Barnabas, and it crumbles into papery flakes in his palm. It’s the sort of weirdly poetic fairytale image Burton is almost alone in still providing in mainstream American cinema. The very finish is similarly loopy, with Victoria repeating her march to the cliffs from the opening, but this time not from mind-control, but a determination to destroy herself if she can’t live in Barnabas’ world. Barnabas tries to save her by vampirising her in mid-air, a ploy that works. Victoria, now entirely conflating with Josette, awakens as an ashen, morbidly transformed, perfect mate for Barnabas. It might be the romantic in me, but this liebestod finish left me grinning for hours.