First of all, a bit of background. “Dark Shadows” was an American horror-themed soap opera that ran for a ridiculous number of episodes during the 1960s and 70s. I don’t think that it ever got a UK broadcast, and only a fraction of the total number of episodes seem to be available on DVD here. But, from the episodes I have seen, it’s brilliant. It’s low budget, cheesy and “so bad that it’s good”.
It’s a slice of classic black & white gothic vampire melodrama, complete with creaking sets and slightly wooden acting. Needless to say, it was only a matter of time before Tim Burton ended up making a film adaptation and this is what I’ll be reviewing today.
Needless to say, this review may contain some mild SPOILERS.
Although I was vaguely interested in this film when it came out in 2012 (to the point that I bought a DVD of the original 1960s “Dark Shadows” TV series), I only actually got round to watching it on DVD earlier this year. But, is it any good? Let’s take a look:
The box art looks awesome for starters 🙂
“Dark Shadows” begins in the 18th century with the wealthy Collins family moving from Liverpool to the north-western United States in order to set up a fishing buisiness. This business thrives and soon a small town called Collinsport grows. With their newfound wealth, the Collinses decide to build a giant gothic mansion called Collingswood. Because, why not?
But, when the Collinses’ son Barnabas spurns his former lover Angelique in order to betroth himself to his true love Josette, Angelique decides to exact revenge. Unbeknownst to Barnabas, she is a powerful sorceress – and she places a malevolent curse upon poor Barnabas. After his parents die in a freak seahorse-related accident, his beloved Josette finds herself mysteriously compelled to walk to the treacherous cliffs of Widow’s Peak.
Rushing to save her, Barnabas is too late and – in anguish- throws himself off of the cliff too. But, after dashing himself upon the cruel rocks below, he realises that he is unharmed. Not only that, he has become a vampyre – cursed to live forever and drink the blood of the living for sustenence.
Of course, it isn’t long before Angelique whips up an angry mob who, with torches and pitchforks in hand, decide to bury Barnabus alive in an iron coffin:
I guess that you could say that the vampire genre was something of an underground thing back then…
Two hundred years later, in the year 1972, a young woman called Veronica Winters is travelling to Collinsport in order to work as a governess for the remnants of the Collins family, who are still living in the crumbling Collingswood mansion. Whilst all of this is going on, a nearby construction crew happens to find a mysterious coffin buried underground and decides to open it….
And, yes, this is only the first few minutes of the film. Although the plot of “Dark Shadows” isn’t quite as convoluted as what I’ve seen of the TV show, I should probably point out that this film really isn’t about storytelling. Yes, this film has a perfectly acceptable story – but it isn’t really what this film is about.
No, this is a film that is all about witty dialogue, gothic atmosphere, dark humour and aesthetic flair. It’s more style than substance and, yet, it works so well. Seriously, my comment about style and substance wasn’t a criticism. This film has style!
My god! What sorcery is this!
Yes, this explosion is pink, and it looks AMAZING!
Yay! WHY don’t horror movies include buildings like this any more?
Seriously, in visual terms, this film is a work of art! I love almost everything about this film – from the intricately old-fashioned set design to the wonderfully gloomy lighting style that is used in many scenes.
Then there’s the brilliant costume design, which is kind of a blend of timeless gothic fashion and 70s fashion (which still seems to show some influence from the 1960s, which would be realistic in a rural community during the early 1970s).
And there’s also a hint of 1980s-style film noir too 🙂
But, the main charm of this film comes from the humour, the eccentric characters and the atmosphere. Most of the funniest lines from the film involve Barnabas being bewildered by the bizarre future of the 1970s and there are almost too many hilarious lines to list.
Throughout the film, Johnny Depp speaks in a hilariously old-fashioned way and this is an absolute joy to listen to. In addition to lots of brilliantly funny dialogue, there’s also a decent amount of both dark humour, character-based humour and slapstick humour too.
There has, unfortunately, been a steady decrease in the quality of American coffins though.
In addition to this, the film absolutely revels in the gothic elements of it’s story. There are crumbling mansions, secret passages, old crypts and all sorts of other wonderful stuff that the film itself seems to geek out about as much as the audience (probably) does. This film is awesome! And it knows it!
And, just for the hell of it, Alice Cooper even makes an appearance too. No, this isn’t a spoiler – his name is literally in the opening credits!
All in all, this film is fun! Yes, it isn’t particularly scary and the story isn’t really that spectacular. But, this isn’t a serious drama. It’s a piece of art! It’s a knowingly melodramatic dark comedy film crammed with hilarious dialogue. It’s a film about a group of eccentric characters who live in a creepy old mansion. It’s an affectionate parody of a cheesy old soap opera and an ode to old horror movies. And, surprisingly, it really works.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a four.