A young girl seeking a position as a governess arrives at the home of the Collins family in a remote town on the American east coast. Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcoate) is not spooked by the grimy mansion or the dysfunctional family, headed by Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer). While she gets acquainted with her new employers and even builds up friendships with David (Gulliver McGrath), the psychologically disturbed son of Elizabeth's brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller) and her rebellious teenage daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), a pale-faced stranger arrives. Elizabeth interrogates the man, who claims to be Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), son of the founder of their family estate, and finds out that he is a vampire who has been cursed by his former lover, the witch Angelique (Eva Green), who has been working against the Collinses for two centuries. Barnabas feels responsible for the family and continues the fight against his nemesis...
With the triumph of television over the cinema in the 1950s one format became especially popular in the USA: the soap opera, a simple to produce and daily broadcast tv series. It revolved around themes like love stories, family life, doctor and hospital dramas or similar with housewifes and sometimes children and young adults who had just come from school as target groups. The industry of the daytime soaps was huge, but mostly consisted of a simple diet which had only few acting or storytelling highlights.
One of the big exceptions in the huge mass of daytime soap operas had been created by the producer and author Dan Curtis in the middle of the 1960s. Dark Shadows had originally begun as a gloomy and a bit scary story about a young woman, who is employed as a nanny by a strange family with many secrets in a little remote town on the American east coast. In spite of the very dramatic and sometimes old-fashioned atmosphere, the series had at first not used any supernatural elements, but after half a year the authors had introduced ghosts and later even vampires. It was the latter element which had made Dark Shadows especially successful, because the character of the vampire Barnabas Collins had become a real phenomenon and was able to broaden the audience considerably. Dark Shadows had, however, a relatively short life and was only on air between 1966 and 1971 for five years. But the daily broadcasts meant that during that time altogether 1225 Episodes were produced.
Although Dark Shadows had been cancelled in 1971 by ABC and because of rights issues reruns were only possible some years later, the series was able to attract a large fan community, which was further cemented by the two motion pictures House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows. In 1991, twenty years after the last episode had been broadcast, series creator Dan Curtis produced a remake in the shape of a longer one-hour format, which was unfortunately also cancelled after only twelve episodes. Another pilot movie, produced shortly before Dan Curtis' death in 2006, was not even aired and only shown on festivals, but nevertheless the memory of Dark Shadows was held up by an enormous fanbase.
Two of these fans were still children when they had seen the initial broadcast of the series: Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, who share a huge obsession with Dark Shadows. Especially the future actor had been so fascinated by the vampire Barnabas Collins that he completely wanted to become one with the character and firmly believed that he would play him in the future in one form or another. But the series had also left its impressions on Tim Burton and had become one of the major influences for his later favourites of everything dark, creepy and scary. The actor and the filmmaker did not actually meet until twenty years after the first broadcast of Darh Shadows, when Tim Burton had cast Johnny Depp as the lead in his 1990 movie Edward Scissorhands. But it actually took another twenty years and seven collaborations between the actor and the director before they were able to transform their dream project into reality.
Who exactly rescued Dark Shadows from oblivion after the 2005 remake and Dan Curtis' death is a bit of a mystery. Most sources say that it was Warner Bros. who bought the movie rights to the series, but there are also reports that it was Johnny Depp himself who had stepped in and acquired Dark Shadows. The involvement of the actor certainly had certainly begun at that time, shortly after Depp and Burton had reinforced their working relationship once again with the successful reimagination of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. With his own company Infinitum Nihil and the involvement of Graham King's GK Films, Depp got the ball rolling and soon Tim Burton and his long-time producing partner Richard D. Zanuck were attached to the project, completing a real dream team of filmmakers.
The beginnings were actually delayed by the huge writers strike which had slowed down the movie and television industry from autumn 2007 to early 2008. In 2009, while Tim Burton was busy preparing Alice in Wonderland, John August, who had earlier worked with the director on Big Fish, Corpse Bride and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was commissioned to write a first draft of a Dark Shadows big-screen adaption. But then something else happened: suddenly the long-dormant vampire genre had been revitalized by the first of many Twilight movies and also by the True Blood television series. The next script rewrites were not done by John August, but by Seth Grahame-Smith, who had enormous success with his satirical mashups Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter - presumably it was his second novel, published in spring 2010, which attracted Tim Burton and Johnny Depp and led them to turn over the script to him. John August later said that not much of his original vision, a dark and brooding vampire drama, made it to the final movie because there was already too much similar material around.
The change of the script writers was later reported to be a kind of coup d'etat by the filmmakers, but Tim Burton and Johnny Depp actually had made the right decision - a completely serious drama with only mildly humorous untertones would have gone completely against the quirky and macabre style of the director. But Seth Grahame-Smith did not succumb to the temptation of turning Dark Shadows into a simple vampire comedy or parody as an answer to the more dramatic competition - instead he turned the script into a distinctly Burton-style entity, dancing on the fine line between horror, drama and sarcastic comedy. It might not be entirely according to the original incarnation of Dark Shadows, but Seth Grahame-Smith's script actually manages to reproduce the feeling and the atmosphere of the television series prefectly.
To digest 1225 half-hour television episodes into one two-hour movie is of course absolutely impossible, but Dark Shadows has the advantage of having several very popular story arcs from which the filmmakers were able to choose. One selection was, of course, the story of Barnabas Collins, the unfortunate and very unusual vampire of the family dynasty, who was the main reason for Johnny Depp and Tim Burton to recreate Dark Shadows. His destiny, complete with an historic introduction about his origins, became the backbone of the condensed story. The very beginning of the television series was also not ignored: the story of the arrival of Victoria Winters and her connection with Barnabas was newly created instead of an original storyline with another character, but it serves the plot very well.
The third major plot is the rivalry between Barnabas and his shunned lover Angelique, who in Seth Grahame-Smiths version of Dark Shadows becomes the one who is responsible for his century-long imprisonment. But instead of letting the vampire and the witch fight with exclusively supernatural forces, the author lets them become business competitors in a subplot unique to the movie. The whole Collins family together with many other protagonists and their small stories have also been integrated into the script, which is maybe the only real problem of the movie. It's hard to fault the filmmakers for their ambition to put as much as possible from the television series into the adaption, but Dark Shadows is somewhat overloaded with too many intricate and complicated plots. This is, of course, only a minor issue for the really interested viewers, but makes the movie much less accessible to the mainstream audience.
The trickiest part of Tim Burton's movie adaption of Dark Shadows was the careful introduction of comedy into a originally very dramatic and basically humourless environment. It would have been too easy to transform Dark Shadows into an outright parody - instead a much more elegant way was found by telling the story like a fairytale or a legend with the slightly sarcastic and macabre untertones of nearly all of Tim Burton's movies. Dark Shadows became neither a full-blown comedy nor a straight drama, but something special in between, limiting humour and parody to carefully chosen moments. But the filmmakers were not able to resist a special humourous addition to the movie: the fish-out-of-water concept with Barnabas, the 18th-century vampire getting a culture shock in the America of the 20th century. In addition, the movie also remained a period piece because the scenery had not been fully modernized. The story not only remained in the 1970s, but also completely embraced the time of the television series in a delightfully nostalgic way, making use of some irresistible, but not too many cultural references.
As a movie from the vampire genre Dark Shadows is actually not particularly bloodthirsty and the horror elements are relatively harmless. Of course there is some blood, but it does not splatter the walls and while there are some action elements, they are carefully choreographed and are not the centerpieces of the story. The movie's intention is not to scare the viewer, but to entertain and raise goosebumps with its carefully tuned atmosphere. The stories of nearly all characters are borderline heartbreaking, but Dark Shadows refuses to be a simple problem movie and is certainly not typical "emotion porn" like many other current examples of the genre. In this respect the movie even resembles Roman Polanskis The Fearless Vampire Killers with its unique mix of comedy, drama and horror. Dark Shadows also relies on its extensive dialogue for the exposition of the story and the addition of the humour, which mainly consists of a careful collection of cynical and even satirical jokes, brigthening the otherwise dark and brooding atmosphere considerably.
While Barnabas Collins is certainly the main character, he is also the one who is driving all the different plots without standing in the spotlights all the time. As a member of a huge ensemble cast, Johnny Depp has wisely resisted to make Dark Shadows his own one-man show. Basing his character mainly on the distinct work of his predecessor Jonathan Frid and only few other elements of classic vampire portrayals, The actor plays his role remarkably restrained and his own interpretation of Barnabas Collins is not simply a pale-faced version of his Pirate Jack Sparrow, but a very individual character. Embracing all the aristocracy and britishness of his role without resorting to outright slapstick at all, Johnny Depp captures not only the superficial aspects of Barnabas, but also shows that, while inherently benevolent, the vampire is deeply complicated being and does not shy away from killing people who betray him. But in spite of his powerful dangerousness he is actually very likable, charming and sometimes wonderfully naive about the modern world.
For Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, the matriarchal head of the completely dysfunctional family, Tim Burton had found another kindred spirit: Michelle Pfeiffer also turned out to be a huge fan of the television series and was already very familiar with all the characters. She is an old friend of the director, having played a magnificent Catwoman in Batman Returns twenty years earlier and actually called him first when she heard about Dark Shadows being made. Now in her mid-50s, and actually not much older than her co-star Johnny Depp, she has aged gracefully and proved to be the ideal choice for the no-nonsense family doyenne, previously played by actress Joan Bennett in the original. While the movie character takes a very different approach than the television series, Michelle Pfeiffer successfully pulls off her portrayal of a decidedly strong and determined woman, who seems to be the only really sane member of the family and is not to be trifeled with. The Elizabeth of Tim Burton's movie adaption is even able to influence and reason with the unpredictable Barnabas, making the joint scenes of Pfeiffer and Depp especially fascinating and entertaining.
The secret lead character of the movie is Victoria Winters, whose arrival in the Collins family is the main plot running concurrently to Barnabas' story. She is actually a composite of two different characters, Maggie Evans and Victoria Winters, from the television series, which have been merged to simplify their stories. Some years back Tim Burton would have cast this role with Winona Ryder or Christina Ricci, but he chose the young Australian actress Bella Heathcote, who like the originator of the character on television, Alexandra Moltke, had previously been relatively unknown. Heathcote infuses the very pale and even ghost-like character with a surprising amount of warmth and life in spite of Victorias very tragic history, which is explained later in the movie. The beginning of the story is told from her perspective to provide an extensive introduction of the Collins family, while also showcasing Victorias very sweet and understanding nature. But while the Collinses new nanny, who is hired to take care of young David, initially seems fragile and insecure, she is actually rather fearless. Bella Heathcote dazzles in her role with a disarming naturalness, but she is not a scream queen in the least or resorts to the theatrical overacting the televison series had been so famous for.
The movie version's antagonist of Dark Shadows is not Barnabas himself, but his 200 year old own nemesis Angelique. The original storyline of the character was so complicated that it needed to be completely rewritten and simplified - her history as told in the television series would have been impossible to tell in the constraints of the movie. For this multifaceted character, Tim Burton had made the surprising choice of casting the french actress Eva Green, who had risen from her appearance as the female lead in Bernardo Bertolucci's controversial love drama The Dreamers to one of the most sought after actresses in Hollywood and even survived her stint as a Bond girl in Casino Royale. Her Angelique Brochard is not a dark and brooding witch, but a young, flamboyant and alluring young woman, who has survived the centuries not mainly with supernatural powers, but by actually actually popular in the hometown of the Collinses. But her unrequited love for Barnabas makes her very dangerous and it is this aspect of her character that Eva Green captures especially well - while she portrays Angelique as partly likeable, her jealousy is what makes the character really come alive.
Completing the quintett of strong female characters are Elizabeth's daughter Caroyln and the family psychiatrist Dr. Hoffmann. Carolyn Stoddard is the archetypal rebellious fifteen year old girl who suffers under the oppressing family circumstances, but actually comes very much after her strong mother and is not as hostile as she appears to be. With Chloe Grace Moretz Tim Burton had found a great young actress in the same age of the character, making her very natural and convincing. But with the character of Julia Hoffmann, the slightly screwy psychiatrist, the director had decided to have a bit of fun and gave the basically thankless role to his longtime partner Helena Bonham-Carter. She also had a lot of fun with her character and completely embraced the image of the frumpy, aging doctor, but although she is a very integral part of the story, the scriptwriters were only able to give her a few selected scenes.
Also only a secondary character, Elizabeth's brother Roger has not much screen time, but is brilliantly played by the british actor Jonny Lee Miller, who perfectly embodies the sleaziness of his most unsympathetic character. Roger's disturbed ten-year-old son David was also one of the main characters of the beginning from the television series, but like his father his story had to be heavily condensed for the movie. He is portrayed by the australian child actor Gulliver McGrath, who gave a remarkably believable performance and even manages to portray the difficult psychological aspects of his character. Willie Loomis, the caretaker and general factotum of the Collins family, was also included in the movie as a bit of sarcastical comic relief and while Jackie Earle Haley has a few wonderful scenes, but his character does not have to do much with the television series.
Tim Burton and Johnny Depp were also able to invite some of their heroes from the television series for short cameo appearances during a big party scene. Jonathan Frid and Lara Parker, who played Barnabas and Angelique both stepped in front of the movie cameras together with David Selby and Kathryn Leigh Scott, who played Quentin Collins and Maggie Evans, two characters not appearing in the story of the movie. Tragically, Dark Shadows was the last apperance of Jonathan Frid, who died in April 2012 before the movie was released. The filmmakers were also able to solicit the help of shock-rocker Alice Cooper, who apperas as the musical surprise guest of the Collinses' big house party, playing himself at the beginning of his career in the early 1970s.
For Dark Shadows, Tim Burton had once again changed his cinematographer and after working with Dariusz Wolski he turned to the french cameraman Bruno Delbonnel, who had already worked on big Hollywood projects like Harry Potter and became famous in France especially for his work with Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Johnny Depp and Tim Burton showed him some vampire movie classics from the early 1970s to achieve a very particular look and atmosphere. They were able to resist the studio pressure to shoot Dark Shadows digitally and in 3D, instead the filmmakers opted for a very traditional approach and used the flat 1.85:1 format using conventional 35mm film. To achieve the heavily desaturated look, the movie benefited much from the technique of digital colour grading, which was used extensively in post-production without making the cinematography completely unnatural. Visually, Dark Shadows does much credit to it's title, looking like it was shot in perpetually gloomy weather.
While the story happens in a remote fishing village on the American east coast in Maine, the movie was actually shot completely in England. During preproduction, the filmmakers were hoping to find a suitable location for Collinsport somehwere in the USA or in England, but in the end the decision was made to construct large parts of the scenery under controlled conditions at the Pinewood Studios. This was a major task for which production designer Rick Heinrichs, one of Tim Burton's oldest collaborators, had been recruited. His detailed knowledge of the director's visual ideas once again ensured that the distinct Burton style was perfectly implemented,
The exterior and interior design of Collinwood, the huge family estate, brilliantly captures a not too artificial gothic look the television series had only been able to hint at in the past. The completely artificially constructed town of Collinsport also has a perfectly natural look which only needed to be slightly enhanced by computer graphics. Dark Shadows makes of course liberal use of CGI, provided by a group of companies led by the british Moving Picture Company, who had already worked on some of Tim Burton's earlier movies. While the majority of the movie was not in need of special and visual effects, some scenes simply could not do without them, but Dark Shadows was not shot exclusively in front of green screens and all effects have been absolutely seamlessly integrated into the footage.
No one other than Tim Burton's favourite composer Danny Elfman could have written the score for Dark Shadows, which takes itself much more serious than the movie itself. The dark and brooding sounds the composer had already showcased in his previous works for Burton like both Batman movies and especially Sleepy Hollow are now back again in full force. His compositions are wonderfully haunting, but also surprisingly warm and mostly do not use Elfman's usual heavy brass orchestration, instead relying on strings and woodwinds. His trademark rhythms are also far less in use than in his previous score, making Dark Shadows one of his most beautiful and original compositions. The orchestral score is also supported by a wondeful selection of songs, which contains a cross-section of 1970s pop music chosen by someone with a great sense of music, probably Danny Elfman himself. Segueing the orchestral overture of the beginning into the main titles with The Moody Blues' Nights in White Satin and using The Carpenter's Top of the World for a musical montage is itself especially brilliant.
With a budget of reportedly about 150 million dollars, Dark Shadows was not a particularly lightweight production, but it feels less than a big studio project than a real work of love for the television series. The movie is not a case of a simple moneymaking-scheme Hollywood remake, but an affectionate and well-meaning homage. Despite the change in scriptwriters and a supposed overhaul of the movie, it is far away from being a complete comedy or parody like the studio probably would have wanted it to be. Consequently Dark Shadows has mostly been advertised as Pirates of the Caribbean with vampires, while the movie is actually quite the opposite, taking the status of its television precursor very seriously and mixing it carefully with Tim Burton's own particular style.
Dark Shadows is mostly successful with its approach, but the constraints of the movie format and the problems of adapting the enormous amount of storylines from the original have taken its toll on the script, which suffers a little under the combined weight of too many plots and characters. But the wonderful actors and the brilliant visuals more than make up for these understandable faults, transforming Dark Shadows on the big screen into one of Tim Burton's most enjoyable movies of late. After its completion in the fall of 2011, the movie was given a May premiere in the USA - unfortunately coinciding with Joss Wheedon's Avengers. The competition, made in 3D and being a full-blown action movie. literally shot Dark Shadows not only out of the cinemas in America, but also worldwide.
Despite the badly planned premiere, Dark Shadows was not the financial failure the press have often claimed, raking in only about 80 million dollars in the USA, but adding another 160 from the rest of the world to the boxoffice. Considering the movie was not really planned to be a huge moneymaking blockbuster from the start, it performed amazingly well in cinemas. Critics were, however not so friendly, complaining about the movie not being funny enough and citing a boring and formulaic script as a problem. On the other side, many were impressed by the gorgeous visuals and some even praised the dedicated actors. Curiously, many fans of the television series complained about the misuse of humour in the movie which was not present in the original, but did not acknowledge Tim Burton's collaboration with David Kennedy, who ran Dan Curtis' production company. Sadly, it was also the last project of the great producer Richard D. Zanuck, who unexpectedly died shortly after the movie's premiere.
Dark Shadows may not be the perfect comedy or vampire drama, but it is a refreshing alternative to the mainstream vampire genre, which has been flooding cinemas and television for some years now. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp finally transformed their joint childhood dreams into reality with one of their most enjoyable and unusual collaborations, bringing their joint adventures now up to eight. Because of the only modest financial success there probably will not be a sequel - Tim Burton has admitted that the tiny storyline he left open was just a gag to reflect the cliffhangers of the television series. Dan Curtis certainly would have enjoyed this new and unique take on his original concept.
After the successful worldwide cinema release in May and June 2012, Dark Shadows was released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the USA and in the UK less than five months later in October, the German release even came about three weeks earlier. The Blu-Ray contains a limited number of extras consisting of half an hour of small featurettes called Focus Points and a five-minute selection of deleted scenes, but save for one short clip about the casting all these extras have unfortunately been left off all DVD editions, even though everything could still have fit on to a single disc.
The DVD reviewed in this article is the German edition, which also seems to have been manufactured for several middle and south european countries. The technical quality is nearly faultless, but the lack of bonus materials compared to the Blu-Ray is disappointing for a Warner release.