“Family is the only real wealth.”
Let’s say you were old enough to remember the TV series “Dark Shadows” (1966-1971), the Gothic daytime soap opera that starred Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins, a modern-day, small-town vampire. Let’s further say you looked forward to Tim Burton’s 2012 big-screen remake of the show with Johnny Depp in the Barnabas role. Would you actually like the film Burton made of it? Well, yes and no, depending probably on how devoted you were to the old cult series. More to the point, would you enjoy it if you weren’t familiar with the old show? That’s more problematical because purely on its own, Burton’s rendition of things doesn’t make a very cohesive film.
It’s all about tone, you see. Neither Burton (“Beatlejuice,” “Batman,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “Mars Attacks,” “Alice in Wonderland”) nor Depp seemed to know whether they should play the story straight, for camp humor, as the old television show did; play it as a modern horror movie; play it humorously, purely for laughs; or play it as a parody. They seem to want it all different ways, throwing in a little of each, and the mixture doesn’t jell. However, thanks to a fine cast and careful attention to the details of setting, sets, costumes, sound, and music (courtesy as always in a Burton film to Danny Elfman), we don’t get a bad film, just an off-kilter and not entirely satisfying one.
OK, so Johnny Depp plays Barnabas Collins, and he’s the first bone of contention. Depp takes over the part originally played by Jonathan Frid, who was a few years younger than Depp when he assumed the part but looked older. More important, Frid took the role very seriously, and one can hardly forget his stern and forbidding countenance. On the other hand, Depp at forty-nine still looks like an innocent kid, and no amount of Nosferatu makeup can help him look very sinister. Worse, he never plays the character in any kind of menacing manner, instead doing it almost entirely tongue-in-cheek; his Barnabas may kill any number of people and drink their blood, but we can never accept it as frightening. The fact is, Depp has achieved his greatest success playing bizarre, oddball characters (Edward Scissorhands, Captain Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka, the Mad Hatter), and he seemed determined here to make Barnabas yet another one of those in his gallery of eccentrics. Only this time, it didn’t quite work; his Barnabas appears simply a study in contrasts rather than a fleshed-out characterization.
The plot involves Barnabas escaping from being buried alive for almost two hundred years by his archenemy, a witch named Angelique Bouchard (played with delicious malevolence by Eva Green), whose love Barnabas once scorned. Barnabas’s reactions to the modern world are the most humorous touches in the movie. Meanwhile, Angelique, being immortal, has lived on to control the fishing industry in the small New England town that Barnabas’s family originally established. Barnabas returns to his family’s ancestral manor house, Collinswood, now gone to pot but inhabited by the remnants of his once-proud family.
The Collins family comprises four members and three hangers-on, all carried over from the TV show. The family members are Elizabeth Collins (Michelle Pfeiffer), the strong matriarch of the bunch; her brother, Roger (Johnny Lee Miller), a weak-willed sap; Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moritz), the rebellious teenage daughter; and David (Gulliver McGrath), Roger’s young son. The hangers-on are Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), a goofy psychiatrist caring for the family; Victoria (Bella Heathcote), David’s straightlaced new governess; and Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley), the requisite creepy old handyman. Two other people among the outstanding talent include Christopher Lee (what self-respecting horror film could be without Christopher Lee?) as an old fisherman and Alice Cooper as himself (or herself as Barnabas says).
Anyway, the movie starts out really well with a businesslike look at the Collins family backstory, their leaving Liverpool in 1760, heading for Maine, founding a fishing village and a fishing empire, Barnabas spurning the witch for the love of a young woman, and the witch getting her revenge. All well and tidy. It’s really when Barnabas returns in 1972 (the year the first TV series went off the air) that the tone changes to, well, I’m not sure what: Comedy? Sort of? We get a little more serious horror but far more in the way of corny gags. While a couple of jokes are cute, most of them are just confounding. The Wife-O-Meter left the film at about the halfway mark, so a 5/10 seems a fair rating.
Witches, ghosts, and vampires. Oh, my!
The Warner video engineers use a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec to transfer the film to Blu-ray in something close to the film’s native aspect ratio, 1.85:1 (rendered here at 1.78:1). The picture quality is just about as I remember it from a theater, slightly soft and veiled; Burton apparently chose intentionally to use a muted palette of colors to emulate the old TV show and to establish an old-timey feel to the movie. So don’t expect bright, vivid hues, just a sort of dull gray throughout. Still, it works, and I have no real complaints.
A lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack fills the surrounds with plenty of activity from crashing waves to ambient musical bloom. Moreover, a transparent midrange renders dialogue clearly, and a strong dynamic impact and robust bass add excitement to the mix.
The primary extra on the disc is a Maximum Movie Mode, whereby one can play the movie with picture-in-picture inserts and nine Focus Points, brief, two-to-eight minute featurettes that help explain stuff in the movie; or you can play the Focus Points separately from the movie. After that, there are five deleted scenes you can enjoy, totaling about five minutes.
The extras on the disc conclude with twelve scene selections; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages; French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Then, because this is a Combo Pack, it includes not only the Blu-ray disc but a DVD of the movie and UltraViolet access that allows you to stream or download the film to your computer and compatible Android, iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad devices, the offer expiring October 2, 2014. The two discs come housed in a flimsy Eco-case, further enclosed by a handsome slipcover with a 3-D holographic picture on the cover.
If Burton and Depp had determined at the outset a specific tone for “Dark Shadows,” the film might have turned out a little better. As it is, the filmmakers don’t seem quite to know what it is they’re trying to do. Whatever it is, it isn’t the old TV series, and it isn’t a particularly gripping new movie, either. It’s just sort of a star vehicle for Johnny Depp, with everyone and everything else a secondary consideration at best.
“All right, everybody go on home now. Nothing to see here.” –Sheriff