Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows is a strange blend of old fashioned humour, the director’s trademark gothic sensibility, monster movie and soap opera. While it doesn’t come close to early 1990s masterpieces such as Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, it is Burton’s most perverse film since Batman Returns and his most playful since Mars Attacks!
Dark Shadows is based on a cult soap opera with supernatural themes, which ran from 1966–1971 and exists somewhere on the pop culture spectrum between Passions and Twin Peaks. Burton’s favourite leading male actor Johnny Depp plays Barnabas Collins, a vampire who after being buried alive for almost 200 years returns to rebuild his family’s fishing business. The film is full of Burtonesque characteristics including a blend of horror and comedy, being set in a strange gothic mansion on the edge of a seemingly normal community and featuring sympathetic monsters/loners as its heroes. While there is a mix of moods in the film, the humour for the most part is oddly successful considering how worn many of the gags are involving the film’s 1970s setting and the wacky behaviour of vampires. A lot of this is due to Depp’s performance, which is comparatively restrained and relies a lot on Burton making him resemble Count Orlok in Nosferatu with a strange haircut.
Dark Shadows is not only comedy and at times is almost feels like a post-modern parody of soap opera narratives where tone and focus shift dramatically. In terms of the film moving into moments of tragic romance story and sinister horror, this works fine but some of the radical narrative shifts feel suspiciously like poor writing. Most bewilderingly is the role of the family’s new nanny Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote) who is introduced at the start of the film as the protagonist after the prologue. In the opening scenes the film hints at her mysterious past and strange insights, which suggests that she is a classic Burton misunderstood ‘freak’. However, once Bamabas enters the main part of the film she is almost removed from the narrative entirely to become a dull romantic interest on the side.
What is most curious about Dark Shadows is its peculiar representation of class. The Collins family is established as coming from a long line of inherited wealth that has delivered privilege and prosperity. The male head of the family Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller) literally steals from the townspeople during a party and Bamabas has no qualms feeding off the working class and counterculture so long as his family are looked after. Conversely the film’s villain, the vengeful witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) is a servant whom Bamabas had an affair with and is then cast aside. So far, Dark Shadows resembles any number of Disney animation features where a fiercely plutocratic ideology is promoted that sees the aristocracy and privileges classes as the good guys while members of the lower classes who ‘don’t know their place’ are the bad guys. What makes Dark Shadows different is that Burton is so gleefully wicked with this scenario.
Perhaps it is the commercialisation and mainstreaming of Burton’s gothic style that compelled him to make a nasty comedy in the guise of a dumb conservative film. Whatever the reason there is something gloriously irresponsible and vicious with how Bamabas is presented as the film’s charismatic hero despite being a mass-murder, somebody who all too easily falls into bed with others despite proclaiming he has a true love and so obviously possesses the despicable born to rule mentality. He’s a vampiric Patrick Bateman.
If the ‘hero’ of the film is so repugnant then that leaves the ‘villain’ to be the most sympathetic character and Eva Green does a wonderful job playing Angelique Bouchard with demented relish. She looks like a cross between Daryl Hannah in the Kill Bill films and Lisa Marie Smith’s Martian assassin in Mars Attacks! In terms of motivation and characteristics she resembles Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer who also stars in Dark Shadows) and the Penguin (Danny DeVito) in Batman Returns since they are similarly the ‘evil’ characters who have far more legitimate complaints with the world than the very rich sociopath who opposes them.
While Dark Shadows is unlikely to win Burton new fans it contains plenty to satisfy his loyal followers who are content accepting that he proved himself over a decade ago and anything decent he does these days is simply good fun. Dark Shadows is not classic Burton, but it’s far from his weakest film and while Burton has never exactly been a subversive filmmaker, he is capable of being flippantly cruel. Underneath the anachronism gags, whimsical fairy tale flourishes and impressive special effects is a mean-spirited vision of the world that’s hard not to secretly take delight in.