In 1979, a student at the California Institute of the Arts made a pencil-drawn short animation film called Stalk of the Celery Monster, featuring a monstrous dentist called Dr Maxwell Payne who preyed on female patients. The short got so much attention that the student was offered an animator’s apprenticeship at the Walt Disney studio. Tim Burton, as he was called, didn’t last long at Disney, but his long career in the macabre had been launched. Dark Shadows is the latest offering from that boy who started making horror films at 13 with a group of friends and a Super 8 camera.
Based on a hugely popular supernatural-themed daily soap that ran on American TV from 1966 to 1971, Dark Shadows is a fantasy-comedy whose utterly camp vampires, witches and werewolves populate the Burtonian-Gothic universe of a 1970s New England town. Casting long-time collaborator Johnny Depp as an imprisoned 18th century aristocrat-vampire called Barnabas Collins who awakens to 1972 America. Dark Shadows is the latest example of Burton’s long-standing attraction to the weird and horrific – so long as it’s in fairy tale form. It seems a revealing sort of coincidence that his first two forays into television were episodes he directed for two long-running shows in genres that couldn’t be outwardly more different: a revitalised 1980s version of the horror series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Shelly Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre, which in the late 1980s was even a Sunday morning show on Doordarshan.
The other running theme of Burton’s filmic career is his interest in reimaginings of popular characters, often drawing on dark, quirky texts that are officially ‘children’s books’ but often feel like rather more grown-up fare such as his interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (2010). His adapation of the Roald Dahl classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and his melancholic 1990 film Edward Scissorhands both feature clever, sensitive children unhappy in a cruel adult world.
The vampire hero of Dark Shadows is not a child, but Johnny Depp manages to mix Barnabas Collins’ courteous hauteur with the childlike curiosity of a man trying to make sense of a strange world 200 years after his time. To his 18th century gaze, a glowing McDonalds sign is an apparition of Mephistopheles, approaching car headlights on a dark road are Satan’s eyes and a lava lamp looks like it’s full of blood clots. The jokes can be a trifle silly – like having Barnabas read and quote from Erich Segal’s Love Story – but Depp’s performance is pitch-perfect. His exaggeratedly mannered politeness always has a threatening edge, a dark interior which is only sometimes acted upon – as in his meeting with a group of doped-out hippies who are thoroughly impressed with his 200-year-trip and tell him sweetly that wooing his beloved doesn’t need to involve giving her father money or sheep.
The film’s opening 15 minutes provide the 18th century context: the Collins family arrives in Maine from England, creating a fishery business that makes them the richest folk in town. Barnabas, young heir to the Collins fortune, has a brief and lustful affair with the maid Angelique but spurns her for his “true love” Josette. The angered Angelique resorts to witchcraft, cursing poor Josette to jump to her death, and turning Barnabas into a vampire and imprisoning him in a box – until a chance construction dig releases him 200 years later.
The Collins household in which the returning Barnabas takes his place is somewhat dysfunctional and extremely entertaining. Headed by Elizabeth (the marvelous Michelle Pfeiffer), it also contains Elizabeth’s useless brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), her 15-year-old sexed-up daughter Caroline (Chloe Moretz, superb), Roger’s 10-year-old ghost-seeing son David (Gulliver McGrath) and two non-family members: Helena Bonham Carter as Dr Julia Hoffman, a live-in psychiatrist ostensibly there to help David and Bella Heathcote as Victoria Winters, David’s newly arrived governess, a reincarnation of the virginal Josette: a girl who in Caroline’s immortal words, “likes to pretend she’s rock’n’roll but she’s a Carpenters kind of chick for sure”. There’s also Angelique the witch (Eva Green) – who, like Barnabas, survives unchanged into the 20thcentury, her Angie Bay Fishery having long superseded the Collins business, and whose marvelously crazed love-hate battle with Barnabas gives the film its central plot.
As with all Tim Burton films, Dark Shadows is a visually arresting spectacle from the word go. The smoky skies and ominous cliffs of the early part are replaced by a carefully created 1970s world in which only the Collins mansion stands out, an almost-too-perfect Gothic remnant whose serpentine staircases and carved wooden nymphs come literally to life in a special effects-laden climax.
The pleasure of watching such a film is largely in the detail, such things as Angelique strutting angrily down a row of portraits of the Bouchard women down the ages who are all, of course, Angelique herself. Unless one decides to take Barnabas’ repeated incantations about blood being thicker than water and family coming first as a moral message, I’m not sure there’s a larger point to Dark Shadows. But it is certainly fun.