Awoken after being buried for 200 years, reluctant vampire Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) comes across his first taste of 1970s-style civilization: a tarmac road leading through the forbidding forest.
“This is curious terrain,” he pronounces. It most certainly is. The latest salvo in a lifelong mission to bring outsider cinema inside, Tim Burton’s 15th feature mixes the personal and the populist, the offbeat and the inappropriate to create a genre-defying Frankenweenie of a movie. It doesn’t always work, but there’s much beautiful mess along the way.
Created by Dan Curtis, who made cult favourites The Night Stalker and Burnt Offerings, the original Shadows TV show was a gothic soap opera that ran from 1966-71 before being syndicated to infinity. As children, director and star were enraptured by what the New York Times termed its “breathtakingly low-rent production values and equally breathtakingly purple dialogue”.
Thankfully Shadows 2012 has rather more of one than the other. The film features a troupe of Burton regulars plus ace cameos from Christopher Lee and Alice Cooper, and supporting turns from a vampy Eva Green and the ever-creepy Jackie Earle Haley.
It’s a good fit but still an odd choice, and when you’re retooling a 1,225-episode show, which story do you tell? At times it feels like all of them...
A ravishing Sweeney Todd-alike intro introduces us to Barnabas’ plight at breakneck, near-parodic speed. The playboy lord of Collinsport, Maine, circa 1750, he spurns the advances of local witch Angelique (Green) in favour of Josette (Bella Heathcote). It’s not, as it turns out, the wisest of moves: Josette ends up dead and unburied, Barnabas undead and buried.
Fast-forward to 1972 and we meet Victoria (Heathcote, again), as she applies for a job as governess at the Collins’ run-down mansion. Here, matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) oversees the remaining rabble as they run the family fishing business into the ground, to the delight of their centuries-old rival (Green, still).
There’s moody flowerchild Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz), troubled young David (Gulliver McGrath), his drunken shrink Dr Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) and debauched father (Johnny Lee Miller). Into this uneasy mix wanders Barnabas, freed from his underground prison by construction workers and looking to raise the family back to prominence without biting too many innocents.
It’s here the terrain gets, as Alice would have it, curioser and curioser. As may be apparent, this is a film, like its hero, that doesn’t quite know what it is.
Though there are lots of funny sequences – mainly the juxtapositions of Barnabas’ repressed 18th century worldview with the permissive 1970s (he rapturously refers to Carolyn’s red lava lamp as “a pulsating blood urn” and barks, “Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!” at Karen Carpenter performing on TV), it’s not really a comedy.
And while there are some startlingly ghoulish attacks, one of which sees Barnabas sucking an IV drip dry through the neck of its user, it’s not a horror film either. Equally, though it’s framed by a love story, it’s not framed as one.
Victoria/Josette gets lost in the A-list mix, and Burton makes up for the underheated central romance with some extreme (for a 12A) raunch. One room-smashing, lizard-tongued boff between Barnabas and Angelique will account for much sexual befuddlement among younger viewers, like that scene in Ghostbusters where Dan Aykroyd gets noshed off by a spectre.
Most bizarrely of all, the industrial in-fighting sometimes resembles a particularly violent, camp episode of Dallas, but with fish instead of oil and vampires instead of Texans.
And yet, Dark Shadows looks gloweringly gorgeous, the cast (particularly Depp and Green) more than earn their keep, and the climactic CG conflagration stops the show: a thrilling monster-mash of raging beasties, spurned women and, er, angry mermen.
When Barnabas says of the family mansion, “It’s the perfect marriage of European elegance and American enterprise…” he could almost be talking about the film itself. Almost.
Later, he watches an episode of Scooby-Doo, pronouncing, “This is a silly play!” In truth, Dark Shadows is a bit of both, and not quite either.
It’s a film content to inhabit its own curious terrain: where Shakespeare gets (unfavourably) compared to the Steve Miller Band; skinny goths are somehow irresistible to flame-haired vixens; and Dracula himself (Lee) and rock’s Prince of Darkness (Cooper) stand winking in the wings like chat show showbiz chums. With a few caveats, you will be too.
Watch the trailer
One of the strangest mainstream releases of recent times, Dark Shadows’ demented gothic melodrama/fish-out-of-water comedy/creature feature feels like you’ve slipped into a Burton fever-dream.