In “Dark Shadows,” Barnabas Collins does not rise from his slumber majestically, cape whipping behind him, on a stormy night in Transylvania. Nor does he have rippling adolescent pecs a la “Twilight.” This vampire, played by Johnny Depp, instead springs out of the coffin after being freed by digging construction workers. After a meal of the workers’ blood, he stares perplexed at the beacon of light that is a glowing set of McDonald’s arches.
Dressed in a high white collar, wisps of hair plastered to his forehead, and disturbingly long and pointy nails, Barnabas looks the part of a villainous monster, but he’s not. Cursed into vampire-dom, he apologizes in 18th century jargon before his prey, brushes his fangs in the mirror even though he has no reflection and naps in the linen cupboard.
Based off the hit campy TV show that ran from 1966 to 971, this Tim Burton film pays homage to the original by placing some of the same characters in a new story. It begins with a serious scene. The wealthy Collins family is cursed forever by the witch Angelique to her jealousy of Barnabas’ true love, Josetta. Angelique then buries Barnabas alive (He is immortal.) for two centuries, and he finally emerges in 1972. He faces a drastically different world, returns to his estate to try to save his descendants from ruin and attempts to fix his sex life.
With ghosts, witches, vampires and werewolves, “Dark Shadows” utilizes all the cliches of supernatural creatures, but pokes fun at those conventions with a self-awareness that is honest and unpretentious. Instead of focusing on the typical problems that a vampire faces in past movies, such as revealing he is a vampire, it is a piece of information that is accepted surprisingly quickly, not an overly dramatic unveiling. The real questions people have about vampire life are addressed: How can he use silverware if silver burns him? What does he wear when he has to go outside? Is it possible to turn him back into a human through blood transfusion? These questions paired with the cheekiness of the 1970s references truly become the novelty and success of the film.
Burton takes dramatic moments that have become familiar and pokes fun at 1970s culture. This creates both a capsule of the time period for those who watched the original TV show when growing up and comic effect. When Barnabas returns to his estate and has to prove himself a former resident of the Collins estate instead of a potential pedophile to the current matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), he putters around the grotesque gothic carvings of the fireplace, dripping with wolves, scales and snakes, to find a hidden switch—which leads to a room full of Elizabeth’s technicolor macrame collection.
It is scenes like these that are of Burton’s signature style, juxtaposing intentional gaudiness and horror to create a tender vision of a character misunderstood. It feels as though “Dark Shadows” was a personal project and that Burton does not seem to mind falling into his distinct techniques with the same actors that pepper many of his movies, such as Depp, his partner Helena Bonham Carter and Michelle Pfeiffer. With hints of “Edwards Scissorhands” and “Big Fish” in its design, it must also be said that the film doesn’t feel redundant compared to Burton’s other movies, but just adds to his oeuvre, as perhaps his best remake out of his recent movies based on pre-existing material, such as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Alice in Wonderland.”
Those who are just as big of fans of the original series as Johnny Depp and Tim Burton themselves will be drawn to the film to reminisce, but others who don’t know the series won’t feel left out. The cast itself, also featuring Eva Green and cameos by Alice Cooper and the late Jonathan Frid —the original Barnabas Collins — create a movie that is nostalgic in a silly and fun way rather than a sad and tired one. By using the same idea of a supernatural series with a realistic backdrop, Burton captures the essence of the original TV show without feeling enslaved to it.
Just like in the TV show, Barnabas also has complexities, stuck between his human emotions and vampire tendencies. Blood-lines interest Barnabas not as a means of sustenance but as a reason for to defend and save his family. It can be said that Burton as a director also defends the honor of the original series while also maintaining a distinct, quirky and compassionate identity– just as Barnabas does. Like how Barnabas is depicted as a human first and a monster by accident, Burton is also human first and a talented director second. He seems to know this and uses his talents to create a spectacle that affects and tickles the audience while still managing to be grounded in its characters and emotions.