Blu-ray/DVD Review ‘Dark Shadows’: Sweet Dreams

I know. Tim Burton’s spoofy spin on hoary gothic soap Dark Shadows (reaching home video Tuesday from Warner Bros.) got stakes through the heart by most critics. But what do they know? (Besides, the film did gross $234 million worldwide.)

Yes, the movie misrepresented itself in trailers and ads as a knee-slapping fish-out-of-water comedy poking fun at the 1970s,  when long-buried vampire Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) arose to join his clan’s dysfunctional and faltering family and set things right. And yes, Dark Shadows is a bit unwieldy, with too much story and too many characters for those not schooled by the frightfully fun show many rushed home from school to see decades ago.

But since Burton is the ultimate fanboy director, I forgive him. In fact, I applaud him. At least he tried to be creative while recreating. And he was right to modernize the style and tone of Dan Curtis’ long-dead series (well, 1991 did bring a brief prime-time rebirth), pumping new blood into it with wry humor, vivid production values and a strong cast, especially — as in eight of his films now — the delightful Depp.

His Barnabas is both dignified and devilish, drinking blood and killing only because he’s cursed to do so, while dutifully trying to restore his descendants to their rightful place atop the small society of a New England fishing village. Yet he must tangle not only with his own inner demons, but also with the witchy Angelique (Eva Green), the ultimate woman scorned.

At looming family manse Collinwood, back with Burton for the first time since her show-stealing turn as Catwoman in 1992’s Batman Returns is Michelle  Pfeiffer as family matriarch Elizabeth, alongside troubled daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz),  amoral brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller) and his sweet son, David (Gulliver McGrath). Burton’s life partner, Helena Bonham Carter, is family shrink Julia, with the reliable Jackie Earl Haley as looney lackey Willie.

But even with cameos by Christopher Lee, Alice Cooper and original Barnabas Jonathan Frid (who died soon after), the real find here is the strikingly sweet-faced Bella Heathcote as new nanny Victoria, who’s hauntingly drawn to Barnabas and has the film’s best line. (When asked if she thinks the sexes should be equal, she replies, “Heavens no. The men would become unmanageable.”)

These characters cavort in a tale twisted by spurts of gore and ample lore from Dark Shadows’ origins, with ample in-jokes and asides for loyal fans. Humor is, in fact, a major plus. (And don’t miss 5 1/2 minutes of potent deleted scenes on the Blu-ray.)  But laughs aren’t the film’s sole purpose, just part of its modernized appeal.

So there you have it: a more well-rounded and appreciative review of Dark Shadows than you may have seen from snooty critics who wonder why Burton dallies with such things as old TV soap operas. Here’s the answer: He loves them, and like so many of his films, Dark Shadows is a valentine to that dark fanboy adulation.

Thanks, Tim. We’re lucky to have you.

— Bruce Westbrook

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