Dark Shadows mines the concepts of return and resurrection that have molded Tim Burton’s entire career, but does so in ways that are at once ravenously self-reflexive, hugely creative, and fascinating in their political implications. Based on Dan Curtis’s cult soap opera that ran from 1966-71 on ABC, Dark Shadows sets Burton’s eternal muse, Johnny Depp, front and center as Barnabas Collins, a scion of 18th-century industrial royalty and nobility who finds himself cursed to live as a vampire and lose all he holds dear by a lovesick witch, Angelique (Eva Green), who wants him all to herself. When he refuses her for another, she rouses an angry mob and has him buried in the earth, from 1760 until 1972, the year after Curtis’s show ended.
Dug up from his entombment by a pack of construction workers, whom he quickly feeds on, Barnabas’s first concern is returning the family name, which has decayed in relevance, to its former glory. The remaining members of the Collins brood—matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), selfish oaf Robert (Jonny Lee Miller), teen nymphet Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz), and lonely pre-adolescent David (Gulliver McGrath)—have taken to spending their days lounging around the family mansion, Collinwood in the fictional Maine town they reside in, Collinsport, founded by Barnabas’s father.
Burton, building off of Seth Grahame-Smith’s impressive script, turns the Collins family into a demented vision of uninspired privilege, corroded by eras of ignorance and frivolity, which could be brought on by Angelique’s curse or merely added burdens. Of course, part of the wild humor of Smith’s script and, by extension, Burton’s film is a satirical jab at the undying endurance of wealth, particularly “old money.” Indeed, it’s not a stretch to see Barnabas as a figure of to-the-bone conservatism, rendered comical and ridiculous by Burton’s use of gore, makeup, and effects to manifest various supernatural hootenannies.
This thematic curiosity gets underlined when it’s revealed that Angelique is still alive and in love with Barnabas, having started up her own fishing and cannery business that put the Collins cannery out of business a long time ago. (In this, it’s of no minor importance that Angelique once worked as a servant for Barnabas and the Collins family.) Powered by the profits from some of Barnabas’s hidden jewels, however, the Collins cannery is reopened and put into favor with the local fisherman after Barnabas hypnotizes the eldest ship captain (a cameo by Burton axiom Christopher Lee). Thus, Dark Shadows becomes focused on the narrative’s satirical battle royale over market shares between Barnabas and Angelique, with marketing and capitalism cast as natural extensions of dark magic. As set in the Nixon era and released amid what might be the beginning of the Romney era, the parallels between this feud and that between old- and new-money politics are at once loose yet unmistakable.
Dark Shadows percolates with subtext, but the wry political ideas behind the narrative never threaten to overtake the wild comedy and grotesqueness, the vibrant colors and period detail that Burton luxuriates in. Depp has rarely been funnier, and the supporting cast offers vivid images of the angry, ugly emotions that grow and rage under the canopy of entitlement and privilege. None of them, however, steals scenes as regularly as Green, who taps into both the melodramatic leanings of the script and source material, and ferocious campiness and morbidity of the director’s obsessions. Her Angelique is a character of immense, gleeful menace, and Green summons the feelings of rejection, fear, isolationism, and class resentment that originally spurred that menace.
Her performance reaches a hilt in the climactic scene, wherein Angelique uses her powers to turn Collinwood against its inhabitants. It’s one of Burton’s best and most outrageous set pieces to date, but is rooted essentially in Angelique’s repressed powers and emotions. And when, surrounded by bleeding walls and torrents of fire, Barnabas tells her that she wishes to possess him, not love him, it becomes clear that the film is also deeply concerned with Burton as an artist and as a fan.
It’s unlikely that any modern director has suffered such a backlash as Burton has over the years, especially following his calamitous remake of Planet of the Apes. When Barnabas speaks of possession rather than love and admiration, one can see the same words being spoken by Burton to those legions who’ve fetishized and made a cult of his earlier works, only to cry betrayer when he chose a new direction, for better or worse. The salvation for both Barnabas and Burton is the element of change and of adaptation, and the ability to buck against corroded nostalgia and obsession. As a longtime fan of the Dark Shadows television series, along with Depp, Burton offers a glorious, gory example of using one’s obsessions to create something unique and personal rather than being beholden to someone else’s imagination, which all too often leads to dogma, or worse.
Despite some expected backlash, Dark Shadows was a hit with audiences, and when it comes to their home-entertainment output, Warner Bros. knows how to treat a hit in the A/V arena. Tim Burton's consistently lovely and evocative sense of color is maintained boldly here, from the sparkling red dress that Angelique wears to the Collins's ball to the bright orange bob of hair donned by Helena Bonham Carter. Black levels are good and inky, and both detail and texture are preserved nicely and with utmost clarity. The audio is equally excellent, with dialogue crisp, clear and out front, and a fantastic hash of Danny Elfman's score, effects, and a robust sampling of '70s pop ("Crocodile Rock," "Knights in White Satin") mixed and balanced well in the back end.
Rather than just offering a solid audio commentary, Warner Home Video has broken up snippets of interviews with the cast and crew, and behind-the-scenes footage to create the Ultimate Movie Mode feature and the Focus Points track, neither of which is as engaging or informative as most commentaries are. One doesn't get a firm grasp as to what exactly spurred interest in the project or how its production came to be, which is what appears to be both features' goal. Still, the deleted scenes are fun and some of them could have even made it into the film seamlessly. A DVD copy and UV copy of the film are also included.
Though lacking in relevant extras, Warner's Blu-ray release of Tim Burton's latest underpraised ode to resurrection and individuality looks and sounds spectacular.