Tim Burton's Dark Shadows

We're back to wish you a Merry Christmas, and depending on your point of view — leave this 'gift' under the tree, or 'piece of coal' in your stocking! 

John: I first experienced Tim Burton's Dark Shadows when it played theatrically in 2012, and while I had seen quite a few episodes from the show before then, and was very familiar with the main cast of characters from the Barnabas era, I had not yet experienced the series in its entirety until we started the blog. That said, I was disappointed with how things were handled in the film. But coming off of our having watched the complete series and two feature films, I agreed it was worth giving Tim Burton a second chance to see if I might have judged him unfairly.

Christine: Up until now, I have not had any interest in seeing this movie, and I approach it with a great deal of trepidation. I have been reading the Dark Shadows novels by Marilyn (Dan) Ross, which has our familiar cast of characters existing within a separate continuity from the TV series, and I will try to view this movie with the same open mindedness I do the novels. 

John: At least with the novels, you can picture the actors you know and love from the show, and accept it as yet another parallel-time scenario. And speaking of the Marilyn Ross novels, for anyone interested in reading more about those (as well as the synopsis of a final, unpublished novel), there's a great article on them in bare•bones — the best of, which I co-edited, and is available through Amazon

"It is said that blood is thicker than water. It is what defines us. Binds us. Curses us. For some, blood means a life of wealth and privilege. For others, a life of servitude."    

Right off the bat, this Dark Shadows universe establishes that Barnabas came to Maine with his family in 1760 to build their fishing industry and found the town of Collinsport, and that he and Angelique knew each other as children. We jump ahead to a rapid succession of events, beginning with Barnabas rejecting Angelique's advances, causing her to use witchcraft to kill his parents, and then, after hearing Barnabas declare his love for Josette, she puts a spell on Josette to make her take a fall from Widow's Hill. After seeing his one true love dead on the rocks, he leaps after her and assumes a lifeless place beside her as the waves crash over them. 

Christine: While I may have gotten whiplash from that intro, so far, I think the movie is off to an interesting start. I couldn't help thinking of dead Bill Malloy when seeing Barnabas' corpse on the rocks.

John: Yeah... I was a bit put-off right away by the fact that Josette was included as almost a throwaway reference. Without the baggage of the show, one might wonder why a) Barnabas would try to kill himself over her, or b) why he was so put-off by Angelique. I mean, the animus prior to her cursing him almost makes less sense when you consider that they were childhood friends. And for what it's worth, would it have killed them to throw a few bones to fans by including (even if only in cameo appearances) other familiar names from the show, such as Bill Malloy?

But wait! He rises from the rocks with a pasty look and bloody tears streaming down his face to look up at Angelique staring down at him from the cliff, as his fingers elongate and his fingernails grow. He helpfully explains that Angelique cursed him to be a vampire, though how she accomplished that remains a mystery. 

John: What a missed opportunity to introduce a Tim Burton-designed bat to administer her curse. No offense to Bil Baird, but that could have been one definite improvement over what we got in the show. 

Christine: I do not believe Tim Burton could have improved on that treasured moment when the Bil Baird bat bites Barnabas, which is probably why he left it out. I love that little guy flying on his fishing pole! Still, a bat really seems required here.

Angelique gets a mob of torch wielding townspeople to lock Barnabas in a coffin and lower him into the ground. 

Christine: Mind you, we are not even 8 minutes into the movie yet, so it's kind of difficult to understand Angelique's motivation for locking him up, but maybe we'll get around to it.  

John: Let's just say there was a mob, and they captured and chained up a vampire and buried him. Are you telling me that no one in town would have passed that particular cautionary tale down through the generations? No way the Collins clan washes away that stain. Thankfully they forego laying out a Collins family tree to try and explain how the characters are related to old Barnabas. 

Christine: Unfortunately, it leads one to wonder why the mob wouldn't just destroy him. It made sense in the series to have him chained up because his father couldn't bear to kill him and was unable to consider the torture he imposed on his son by locking him up indefinitely. While Angelique was able to appreciate that fate, why would the townspeople go along with it?

Fast forward to 1972 where Maggie Evans, who is Josette's doppelgänger, makes her way by train to Collinsport as "Nights in White Satin" plays. She begins to rehearse her introduction to the family, and decides to change her name to Victoria Winters after seeing a travel poster on the wall. 

Christine: This must be a means to explain why the character of Maggie Evans is technically absent from this movie, but it is another harbinger of what to expect from this film to have a foundational character of the TV series turn out to be a fabrication. At least there is good music. 

John: Where's Burke Devlin when we need him? The film does have a decent period soundtrack, but by this point I was reconsidering how much of a fan of the show Tim Burton really was. Would someone steeped in the lore of Collinwood sign on to this particular take of the characters/storylines? 

Vicki hitches a ride with some hippies to Collinwood and gets a good look at the 1970s era fishing village. 

Christine: I'm getting the impression that 1970s nostalgia is going to be a big factor in this film. I'm okay with that, as long as it serves the story.

Victoria is greeted by Willie at Collinwood, asks about Barnabas' portrait, and meets Elizabeth, who lets us know we can also expect to see Mrs. Johnson, Carolyn, David, Roger and Dr. Hoffman in this version of events, but that David's mom Laura is dead. 

Christine: At least Dr. Hoffman has a more plausible explanation for taking up residence at Collinwood than she did in the TV series.

John: I was curious at this point whether David's Mom would play an active part in the film, or if the reference to her was a throwaway line. Willie is played by the always entertaining Jackie Earle Haley, and Julia is played by Burton's then muse de jour Helena Bonham Carter. Followers of his filmography may be aware that he swapped prior muse Lisa Marie for Bonham Carter during the (re)making of Planet of the Apes, in which both women appeared. I pass no judgement in pointing out he chose the ape from that film. For what it's worth, Burton and Bonham Carter have since split, and though I've not heard anyone linking him romantically to Bonham Carter's co-star, Dark Shadows Eva (Angelique) Green, who appears to be his latest muse, having filled the post-Dark Shadows Bonham Carter void in Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children and Dumbo. But enough with the tabloid headlines, and back to the feature.

Vicki meets the family and things get sort of weird and campy. 

She also meets Josette's ghost who warns that "he's coming." 

John: I wonder what Josette's motivation was for appearing, particularly prior to Barnabas' arrival at Collinwood. Again, to those familiar with the show, you can make assumptions, but for the uninitiated, does this make any sense?  
Christine: Vicki does not seem too surprised to encounter a ghost who looks like her, though later scenes explain why she was unsurprised to see her, as well as why she was there before Barnabas. It was good to see there may be some scary elements in this movie. 

John: Yeah, but sadly limited to PG-13 scary. 

Some construction workers inadvertently dig up Barnabas' coffin, cut the chains, and he goes on a feasting rampage that was pretty scary until he made a wisecrack about how thirsty he is. 

John: I think I had a clear sense that we weren't in Kansas anymore when Barnabas saw the McDonald's golden arches, and assumed it was a reference to Mephistopheles. So much for any real attempt to be scary, with tongue so firmly in-cheek.

Christine: I agree. It certainly reduced the impact of the prior scene.


Bloody Barnabas comes across a drunken Willie at Collinwood and hypnotizes him to get information from him. He then makes him his servant without having to put the bite on him. He walks through Collinwood, waxing poetic about its construction, before meeting Carolyn, David and then Elizabeth. He admits to Elizabeth that he is Barnabas Collins and is a vampire, rather than posing as a relative from England. 

Christine: I think that could end up being a nice diversion from the original story, depending on how it ends up being treated. 

John: I agree this was an interesting twist to apply to the storyline, but it was all-too clear to me that things were just going to be played for camp for me to get excited about this going in  a fresh direction. I normally love Tim Burton's sensibilities and visual style, but I am left to believe that any love for Dark Shadows he may have harbored was based on a love for what he thought Dark Shadows was, as opposed to the show that it actually was. As if he grew up playing the Dark Shadows game, and building the Barnabas and Werewolf model kits, and perhaps collected the books and comics without reading them — but never really saw much of the show and only knew about it from articles he may have read in Famous Monsters or Teen Beat magazines. And this is not to say that he should have focused more on appeasing the existing Dark Shadows fan base — a successful film, or launch of a new franchise, would require a much more sizable audience than that. Of course the down-side of playing to a broader audience is that you don't find them, and you disappoint the existing base in the process. Oh, and you can't do a period piece like this without also using Donovan's "Season of the Witch."

He leads Elizabeth to a secret room filled with treasure and tells her he intends to stay and be a part of the family. She agrees, if he promises to keep the treasure a secret between them. 

Christine: Scenes like this one that are played straight have been the most effective and enjoyable thus far.

John: Yep. The film does seem to have an identity crisis, and had me longing for a Tim Burton House of Dark Shadows-take on the material. 

The family congregates for breakfast and Elizabeth has to continually correct for Barnabas, who is unable to pretend to be a relative from England. She explains the dire financial circumstances the Collins family finds themselves in, and Barnabas pledges to reverse their fortunes. 

Christine: It's nice to see that Barnabas' family values are still represented, but it will be a surprise if he doesn't end up bringing total ruin to the family. 

He meets Vicki, who he recognizes as Josette, and makes a big deal about calling her Victoria.

Angelique is running a rival company that is hurting the Collins family fishing business, which indicates she may have a better idea of how to hurt the Collins family than her TV predecessor did. She gets word of the construction workers having their throats ripped out and goes to the site to discover that Barnabas has been released from his coffin. She makes haste to Collinwood to see him. 

At first she appears to put the make on Barnabas, who threatens to expose her as a witch, but she makes it clear that no-one would believe his claims. and demonstrates that she still has powers that can hurt him. 

Christine: It remains to be seen whether or not she'll try to get Barnabas back in accordance with past history.

John: While I understand why Burton would cast Depp as Barnabas, I wish he didn't play the character so broadly. On the other hand, I think Eva Green's Angelique steals every scene she's in. 

Elizabeth encourages Barnabas to fight Angelique, which he agrees to do, and we are treated to a montage of scenes in which Collinwood is renovated and Barnabas gets to know home in a new century, ending with a successful revival of the Collins family business, accompanied by the Carpenters' "Top of the World." 

Barnabas uses his power of hypnotic persuasion to steal fisherman away from Angelique to come work for the Collins family, and then allows Roger to catch him bringing coins up from the secret treasure room. He becomes fascinated with Carolyn's lava lamp, prompting Julia to offer him psychiatric services. She hypnotizes him and learns all his secrets. She goes to Elizabeth with what she knows, who suggests she should be fascinated by him. 

John: It was nice to see Christopher Lee turn-up in a cameo role; one of his last outside of a few more Saruman appearances for Peter Jackson.
Christine: Could this be the beginning of an infatuation for Julia?

John: Once again, an interesting way to introduce a concept from the original show... if it goes anywhere. 


Barnabas goes to Carolyn to seek courtship advice in the current era, in another effort to include some humor. She advises him to hang out with normal people, so he decides to converse with a group of pot smoking hippies. They advise him to offer love instead of money to obtain his true love, and then he murders them all.

Julia attempts to cure Barnabas of vampirism, and she appears to mislead him on the concept of doctor-patient confidentiality.

Vicki catches up with Barnabas at the ocean for a brief chat. Angelique meets with Barnabas to try and buy him out. She demands to have his love and threatens to take everything he loves if he doesn't give it to her. They proceed to have wild sex on all surfaces of the room, leaving it in ruins, after which he informs her that he cannot succumb to her charms again, and she renews her resolve to destroy him. 

John: This scene had my wife cracking up in the theater. Sure, it's funny, but sadly, it's indicative of the sillier film Burton chose to make. 
Julia continues her transfusion treatments with Barnabas, which do not appear to be working. Vicki has a dream of her parents having her committed to Windcliff Sanitarium for having conversations with Josette as a child. She wakes to the ghost of Josette asking for her help, but does not know how she needs help. 

Christine: Interesting to see see that her involvement with Josette goes back to childhood, and that she may have been responsible for bringing Vicki to Collinwood. Now we can understand why Vicki was not surprised to see her initially, and that she appeared before Barnabas' arrival because she attached herself to Vicki early on.

Barnabas suggests the Collins family host a ball, providing the excuse to offer a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo moment with our beloved actors from the original series.

Christine: This scene left me with a profound sense of disappointment. Tim Burton could have easily done better. Even Alice Cooper got better air time.

John: Yep, our last look at Jonathan Frid can almost be captured in its entirety in that screenshot. And while it might have been funny once, Barnabas' repeated statements about Alice being a woman quickly wore thin... 

Vicki decides she's in love with Barnabas. She tells him of her formative years spent at Windcliff and her eventual escape from the sanitarium, while leaving out the detail that she was perpetually accompanied by a ghost. 

Christine: I find the choice to have Vicki arrive at Collinwood by Josette's hand an interesting idea, though it's still not clear what she expects her to accomplish. 

John: This is an example of a story thread that might have proven more interesting in the long-form of a television show where they had time to develop the idea. Here it just came across to me as contrived. 

Angelique crashes the party just in time to find Barnabas and Vicki making out on the balcony, causing her face to crack. 

Barnabas catches Julia transfusing herself with his blood and realizes she's not attempting to cure him, but achieve immortality for herself. He punishes her by rapidly draining her dry, and enlists Willie's help to dump her corpse in the ocean. 

Christine: An interesting twist on Julia's betrayal.

John: Yep, this would have been a very interesting plot point in a more serious take on the subject matter. Here, it just serves as a setup for a later gag. 

Barnabas catches Roger trying to discover the way into the treasure room. He tells him to choose between becoming a good father to David or leave with enough money to live somewhere else. He decides to leave Collinwood. David tearfully runs through Collinwood, inadvertently causing the disco ball to fall and nearly land on him, which prompts Barnabas to use his supernatural ability to save him and expose his true nature to everyone in the room, including Vicki, who shuns him. 
John: Can you imagine had Roger decided to stay and become a good father? That might have been the funniest joke in the film!

Barnabas goes to Angelique to demand that she make him mortal again. He admits to killing Julia and others, saying he was compelled by her curse. She makes him an offer he can't refuse, to rule alongside her as partners and lovers, or she'll put him back in the box. He refuses, and she immediately has him chained in a coffin and breaks his cherished wolf's head cane, tossing it in after him. She then uses witchcraft to cause the Collins family cannery to explode. 

Christine: This incarnation of Angelique doesn't really mess around. 

John: I think the breaking of Barnabas' wolf's head was symbolic of how the filmmakers treated of the legacy of Dark Shadows.  

She locks him in the mausoleum but he is immediately rescued by David. Angelique meets up with the sheriff, who is coordinating efforts to deal with the building burning at the docks, and plays a recording of Barnabas admitting to murder, rallying the townspeople to turn on the Collins family. They arrive at Collinwood, and the sheriff says he's going to arrest them all. Barnabas appears and bites Angelique, causing her to use her powers, exposing her as a witch to the townspeople. 

Angelique says none of this would have happened if he had only loved her. A battle ensues between them, with support from Elizabeth, until Angelique causes the manor to bleed and self destruct in an impressive display. 

Carolyn drops down from the balcony, revealing that she's a werewolf, and proceeds to deal with Angelique, who easily throws her off. Angelique then admits that she sent a werewolf to bite Carolyn when she was in her crib, and killed David's mom. She tells Barnabas that she killed his parents because they tried to keep them apart. David tells her to leave him alone, and she decides she wants to kill him first. She advances on David and he warns her to stop, but before she can do anything, his dead mother appears and throws Angelique into the chandelier, which falls and smashes on the ground.

John: Carolyn-as-werewolf might have made for a cool storyline, as opposed to a last-minute revelation that doesn't amount to anything more than the ticking one more box on the Dark Shadows bingo card.
The family gets out of the house. Barnabas approaches Angelique and debates whether or not she loves him or wants to possess him. She reaches into her chest and pulls out her pulsating heart and offers it to him. He does not accept it, so it turns to dust in her hand and she dies. He goes after Vicki, who is making her way to Widows' Hill, despite the fact that she should no longer be under any spell of Angelique, who is now dead.

John: This is arguably the coolest visual effect in the film. 
Barnabas reaches Vicki at the cliff, who says he has lost her because he lives in the shadows while she lives in the light. He refuses to give her immortality, so she takes the cliff dive, causing him to fall after her and bite her in midair so she can rise from the rocks as one of the undead. Barnabas says his curse has finally been broken.

Julia opens her eyes underwater.

Final thoughts:

John: As if my comments along the way haven't been clear, I remained disappointed with Tim Burton's take on Dark Shadows. I just can't square the notion of his being a life-long fan of the original show with the film that he made. Sure, the production values are spectacular. But such a comedic take almost begged for wobbly headstones like we so often (accidentally) experienced in the original series. I think he could have injected some relevant elements of humor in a more serious take on the property, and had a much more successful result. If ever there was something that would have brought Dan Curtis back from the grave, this might just be it. For my money, if you want to have a good time laughing at Dark Shadows, sit down with the bloopers compilation. It's far funnier, and oddly seems more respectful, than the film Burton and company delivered. 

Christine: Well, it certainly was Tim Burton's Dark Shadows, and it seems his inspiration for creating this film was more about his own personal childhood nostalgia than delivering something to celebrate and honor the show for itself. I agree with your analysis on how he could have used humor more successfully. Much of the humor involved jokes about the 1970s that were incidental to the action onscreen and had little to do with Dark Shadows, which ended up having a jarring effect as they did nothing to serve the storyline. What felt most disrespectful to me was the way original cast members were included. I'd rather he'd left them out entirely than flash them briefly in mute appearance in an attempt to capitalize on their standing with fans to provide some legitimacy to his film. While I initially thought the whole Maggie/Victoria identity change was to explain the absence of Maggie, I see now it was just an excuse to include "My name is Victoria Winters...", which makes it even less palatable. The film is not without its entertainment value, but I think it ended up being a wasted opportunity in terms of creating a novel experience that honored the story and characters it derives from. I would not watch it again. 

I had the same look on my face when viewing the macrame scene.


Grant said...

My problem with countless period movies is that (no matter who the makers are) they lay the period stuff on so heavily, without letting up on it, including the music. That's the main thing that's kept me from seeing this one, instead of anything I've actually heard against it.
It's hard to tell from this review whether I'd have that particular problem with it or not. All I know is that, when a period story has a song literally every few minutes, or some topical of show business reference that often, I just can't help tuning it out. It's almost never about the songs themselves or the other things, it's about the NUMBER of them.
Does this one really go overboard with that (depending on how you define going overboard with it)?

Christine said...

You may have a problem with it, Grant, though not because it goes overboard, but that there's no real purpose to the references other than serving up a plate of 1970s nostalgia. For instance, in the scene pictured above, Barnabas is demonstrating his knowledge of secret rooms at Collinwood to Elizabeth, only to discover that she's hidden away her macrame artifacts in one of the secret rooms. It's an excuse to poke fun at the 70s, but serves no other purpose in the story. In the scene with Victoria (Maggie) at the beach, Barnabas reads to her from LOVE STORY by Erich Segal, which he references again when consulting the pot smoking hippies for contemporary advice on courting women. The 70s music and references aren't continually in your face, but they're noticeable because they feel tacked on for no other purpose than reminding you of the era when you were a kid and excited to run home from school to watch DARK SHADOWS, maybe while your mom was busy doing macrame or reading LOVE STORY.

John Scoleri said...

Coincidentally just saw a notification that the film (which is streaming on Hulu as I write this) will get pulled on 12/31. They linked to an interesting Collider article (https://collider.com/johnny-depp-tim-burton-dark-shadows-interview/) in which Burton discusses the challenges in bringing the adaptation to the big screen:

BURTON: It’s a tricky tone and we all recognize that. When we talked about Dark Shadows, part of its appeal was the weird nature of all the elements that went into it. It was very serious, but it was on in the afternoon, on a daily basis. There were certain reasons why we loved the show, but you couldn’t necessarily adopt to a film. It was the weirdest challenge to get the acting tone and the soap opera nature of the tone. That’s a weird thing to go for in a Hollywood movie. It’s not like you can go to a studio and go, “We want to do weird soap opera acting.” They go, “Oh, great! Whatever that means.” That’s why I was so grateful to all of the cast. Even the ones that didn’t know the show, got into the spirit of it. What made it Dark Shadows was trying to capture the spirit of what the show was.

D.Wor said...

Thank you for this. I am sorry I missed it when it was posted. (Thanks, blogger!) I didn't expect this feature was even going to get a mention, but now that it has, I am grateful. It confirms my expectations of what people understand about this film. Best...