The shine of Dark Shadows

Tim Burton’s new comedy horror is a fun exploration of the vampiric anti-hero.

Dark Shadows opens in the distant past, as Barnabas Collis arrives in America from England with his parents in the late 1700’s.

Although we manage to catch a glimpse of his early life, which wasn’t really depicted in the original TV show, as Barabas’s story in the series begins in the 1970’s.

The exposition is dark and compelling, and sets the mood for the remainder of the film. It leads us into an opening sequence which, interestingly, does not attempt to update the tale. It’s typical with adaptations like these to set them in our modern time, just as they were set in their modern time when they were originally writen, but Grahme-Smith, the film’s screenwriter, who also penned the upcoming Abraham-Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, decided to keep the film in its original time frame.

The stark visuals don’t stop at the end of the flashback, however. The film maintains a compelling style throughout. The colors throughout the film are particularly cool, especially in scenes featuring Barnabas. It lends the film a natural coolness itself, which fits very well with the setting and development of the characters. 

As expected from the previews, much of the humor of the first half of the film relies on the man-out-of-time trope, which feels a bit clichéd, as Johnny Depp finds himself confused at everything from electric lights to automobiles to hippies. It does make a certain sense that the character would be confounded by these things, and something would have been missing from the character if he had not been, so it’s perhaps a necessity that he experiences this confusion. Still, it’s trite, and it is hard to make myself appreciate one more ‘how did you get the tiny people into the television’ joke after a lifetime of time-travel stories.

Beyond this however, the characters are well-rounded and sympathetic. Barnabas is a perfect anti-hero, a real anti-hero, not one of these poseur anti-heroes from many action films, who are called ‘anti-heroes’ because they have a bad attitude or a vaguely hinted at terrible past. Barnabas has serious flawed action, including, but not limited to, the murder of some two dozen people over the course of the film, and using magical, mental manipulation to get what he wants from the minor characters without even considering the ethical implications. He’s overtly promiscuous, egotistical, and basically selfish. His major redeeming trait is that he truly cares for his family, and when it comes down to it, he would do anything to protect and comfort them. 

Many of the other characters are less dimensional than Barnabas, but still very well written, and the cast is exemplary in their performances, with the only rough spot being the performance of Chloë Grace Moretz, who plays the teenage Carolyn, near the end of the film. In her final scenes, the character’s attitude seems to slip in a strange way that doesn’t really resonate with who she has been throughout. The other major players, however, never slip. Eva Green is especially impressive in the role of our villain, the witch who cursed Barnabas and imprisoned him, and who now seeks his affections in this new time, still young and lovely looking. This character also brought some of the few CGI effects to the film, and in the climactic fight scene this is used extremely evocatively, and in such a way that makes even this character become very sympathetic, and the entire situation seem a grand shame.

Overall, Dark Shadows is an epic and moving film, which touches many of the right buttons once the momentum picks up. While it’s a bit goofy, the characters still resonate, and though it’s gruesome at times, it is not gory. There is very little gratuitous in this film, and I have a hard time imagining an audience who would not have great fun with the story.

Dark Shadows is in theaters now.