First off, a qualification : if you’re a lifelong (or thereabouts) fan of Dan Curtis’ classic Dark Shadows TV series, I can understand why you would hate Tim Burton’s new film of the same name. It’s many things, but old-school Dark Shadows isn’t one of them. Feel free, with my full blessing (whatever that’s worth), to absolutely despise this flick right down to a molecular level if you fit into this category of viewer. But if you don’t —
— then seriously, where is all this vitriol coming from? I’m not saying it’s a tremendous or important movie by any means, but it’s brainless, entertaining, heavy-on-the-camp fun that’s pretty solidly constructed Burton-by-the-numbers.
And maybe that’s the problem. Tim Burton’s work has, indeed, become almost relentlessly formulaic by this point : de-fang horror/gothic/50s-era sci-fi concepts to make them palatable to mainstream family audiences, concentrate heavily on the visuals, strenuously avoid even the hint of any political subtext, add in a dash of blatantly-obvious-but-ultimately-respectful-to-its-source self-satire, have your admittedly talented cast skew their performances toward the knowingly pantomime, and voila! You’ve got yourself morbidity for the masses.
Apparently this is now some sort of crime. Granted, Dark Shadows is no Ed Wood or Big Fish, but it doesn’t wallow in Burtonian excess the way that the more successful (as far as the box office goes) Charlie And The Chocolate Factory or the mega-successful Alice In Wonderland did. But judging by the reaction out there on Twitter and other “social media” sites, you’d think this was somehow the nadir or Burton’s career (how quickly we seem to forget Mars Attacks!) — in fact, it seems to be generating as much overly-malignant hatred as The Avengers is generating overly-effusive praise. But hell, at least this movie is recognizably the work of a singular creative vision (albeit not one operating at its peak) rather than pure CGI assembly-line product that could have been directed by any of dozens of different self-styled “action auteurs” (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — if The Avengers had been helmed by Jon Favreau, it would essentially be no different) who are ultimately as interchangeable as the material they produce.
The cast is the usual mix of Burton way-more-than-regulars (Johnny Depp in the title role of Barnabas Collins, Helena Bonham Carter as family doctor/lush Julia Hoffman, Christopher Lee in a terrific cameo — as opposed to his pointless quick turn in The Wicker Tree — as an “old man of the sea”-type), talented, well-cast veterans (Michelle Pfeiffer as tired family matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, Jackie Earle Haley as the hapless Willie Loomis) and up-and-coming talents (Eva Green as Barnabas’ principal object of love/hate, Angelique Bouchard, Bella Heathcote as his principal object of love only, Victoria Winters, Jonny Lee Miller as weak-willed family weasel Roger Collins, Chloe Grace Moretz doing her teen-with-a-‘tude thing as Carolyn Soddard), and while none are giving what could in any way be called inspired turns, all are solid and dependable.
As is the story, an uncomplicated affair about Barnabas emerging from the grave, vamped to the hilt, in the early 70s to help his fallen-on-hard-times clan rebuild their fishing and canning empire in the face of rival competition that’s equally supernatural in origin, with a little bit of reincarnation-themed romance thrown in for good measure. It’s hardly demanding stuff, of course, but it’s perfectly suited to function as precisely what it is — a distracted afternoon’s or evening’s summer lightweight entertainment. Joss Whedon does this with a team of super-heroes and we call him a genius. Tim Burton does it with harmless comic vampires and we say he’s jumped the shark. Go figure.
All of which goes to show nothing so much as the herd mentality so prevalent amongst today’s film-buff “community.” In truth, both Dark Shadows and The Avengers are cut from remarkably similar cloth — throwaway big-budget diversionary fare that demands nothing of its audience and gives you pretty much exactly what you figure to be in for when you buy your ticket. One is being praised for it because, hey, other people immediately started talking about how good it is, and one is reviled because, hey, other people immediately started talking about how stupid it was. But you know what? At least Dark Shadows has no pretense of being anything other than precisely what it is, and no army of zombies (or vampires) doing its studios’ dirty work for it and publicizing it like mad for free.
I freely admit that might be a big reason why I actually enjoyed this a little more than Marvel’s billion-dollar-bonanza, and I also freely admit that actions taking place off-screen should , by all rights, play absolutely no part in how I react to what’s taking place on-screen. But it’s not a perfect world. And Dark Shadows is far from a perfect film. But I ended up liking it it a lot more than I was honestly expecting to — and if you go into it with an open mind, who knows? Maybe you will, too.