'Dark Shadows': A vampire tale that bleeds retro
Rip Van Winkle's 20-year snooze is a catnap compared to the time Barnabas Collins has spent buried in the ground, lying in a coffin shut tight with heavy chains.
The protagonist of Tim Burton's merrily macabre Dark Shadows was put there way back in the 1750s. It isn't until 1972, when a construction crew bangs its shovels onto something hard, that Barnabas emerges from his slumber. Said gentleman happens to be a vampire, and he happens to be extremely thirsty. Bad luck for the guys in the hard hats.
Adapted from the daytime Gothic soap of the late '60s and early '70s - a seminal TV experience for the prepubescent Burton - Dark Shadows is a nutty romp that's as much about celebrating a significant blip in the pop-cult continuum as it is a tale of bloodsucking, of grudge-holding, and the stress involved in maintaining a 200-room, two-century-old house.
Oh, and no surprise here: Johnny Depp - in his eighth collaboration with director Burton - stars as Barnabas, a man seriously out of sync with the times. (Eyeing Chloë Grace Moretz, who plays Barnabas' volatile teenage cousin, Carolyn, he surmises that she must be a prostitute - why else would she be wearing such skimpy garb?) Depp sports an English accent - the Collinses were Brits who sailed for Maine, where they set up a thriving fishery business. And he sports a blanched complexion befitting someone wary of the sun.
Indeed, Burton and his music supervisor missed an ideal vintage hit for their soundtrack: Procol Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale" would have perfectly described Depp's skin tone. But never mind, the movie boasts an inspired retro playlist: The Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin" sets the tone over the opening credits, and Donovan's "Season of the Witch," T. Rex's "Get It On," and the Carpenters' "Top of the World" pinpoint the era with buoyant specificity.
And pinpointing the era - lovingly - is very much what Dark Shadows' has on its mind. While there's a tangle of romance and vengeance and all sorts of family matters to deal with, Burton's film is really about hippies in bell-bottoms, stoned out in their VW micro-buses. It's about shag carpeting, lava lamps, and troll dolls. The marquee of Collinsport's movie theater offers another chrono-cultural tipoff: Deliverance is playing one week, Super Fly the next.
And so Depp's Barnabas heads up to Collinwood Manor, the crumbling manse where he finds the family matriarch, Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), presiding over a dysfunctional clan. There is the raging sulkhead played by Moretz, and there is Elizabeth's deadbeat brother, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), not sure what to make of his inquisitive 10-year-old, David (Gully McGrath). There are so many problems here that the Collinses have a live-in shrink, Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), who happens to be drunk most of the time. Jackie Earle Haley, hunched and hoary, is the caretaker, Willie.
But it's the two women in Barnabas' (very long) life that really matter: Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote) is a young lass hired on to nanny David, but she bears a striking resemblance to Josette, the ethereal beauty Barnabas fatefully fell for in the mid-18th century.
And Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), the jealous witch who buried Barnabas alive when he professed his love for another, is now Angie, a hard-charging exec who runs a cannery on the Collinsport docks. When Barnabas and Angelique meet again, they tear the place up - literally. It's an epic I-hate-you/I-lust-for-you set piece, beautifully pulled off with acrobatic flair (and CG and wires).
The look of Dark Shadows is hallucinogenic and hyper-real, with carved stairway banisters and fireplace figurines springing to life, with vivid Goth tableaux and groovy clothes, with raging seas and trippy skies.
Just when the whole vampire thing was beginning to feel old, Depp and Burton have come along to make it feel, well, very 1972 again.