Cursed to become a vampire by a jilted lover, nobleman Barnabas Collins is unearthed two centuries later (in 1972) to find the world almost completely changed. His beloved home, Collinwood Manor, remains barely standing, presided over by the remnants of his family. Barnabas moves to restore his family to its former glory, even as he is haunted by the spectre of at least one lost love...
I lamented previously about the foul taste left by the trailer for this, the latest Tim Burton/Johnny Depp collaboration. I couldn't understand how a film by two avowed fans of the original series could be as off-puttingly goofy as the trailer suggested it would be. Reviews of critics and reports from friends suggested that my fears were well-founded. And yet even weeks after the thing opened I remained curious about it, and figured I'd have to see it for myself. I went with my girlfriend, a woman who's picked up my DARK SHADOWS habit, who held out hope that there was something of substance within the film. I harbored my doubts even after the solid prologue, bracing myself for the film to go off the rails.
But it never did. The credits roll as Victoria Winters travels to Collinsport to take her new job as governess to Collinwood Manor (the event that opened the original series - indeed, it was a dream of this image that led Dan Curtis to conceive the show). The Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin" is an obvious choice to score this, but it works. The choices Burton (and writers John August and Seth Grahame-Smith) makes in introducing the Collins clan, from the still-proud elegance Michelle Pfeiffer brings to Elizabeth Collins Stoddard to young David Collins' startling resemblance to the young Damien Thorn, also work, demonstrating an understanding of what makes the characters compelling but necessarily going beyond simple rehash.
There is humor in the film, yes. And some if it is so gaudy that it seems to have been tacked on after the fact (and yes, I refer to the scenes that figure in the trailer). My girlfriend was convinced that these scenes were shot at studio insistence, and though one cannot ignore Burton's previous lapses into mood-breaking cutesiness (and there have been several), the gothic tone is so lovingly realized throughout the film that these scenes are hard to explain any other way. Especially alongside moments of sly humor that are realized more solidly, and are genuinely funny. One such moment finds Barnabas cursing a bright (and prominently framed) McDonald's sign. "Mephistopheles!" he hisses, a clever subversion of such direct product placement that showcases a wit absent in the film's goofier moments.
It is as compromised as Orson Welles' MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, which is not to say that it is as brilliant as that film remains. Some choices can not be laid down to studio interference. Eva Green holds all of the physical characteristics of Tim Burton's favorite leading ladies, but she doesn't bring to Angelique the knowingly freaky grace and eldritch power that would have made her a formidable villain (Burton's former muse Lisa Marie MUST have had the role at some point in their history). Still other characters are clumsily misplaced - Jonny Lee Miller's Roger Collins is too one-dimensional to ever be effective and is quickly written out; Victoria's backstory is rushed through; and there are a couple of character 360s that exist solely to provide the final conflict some oomph.
But even through all of these setbacks, these mistakes, these interferences, there is plenty to latch onto. Johnny Depp's haunted, irreverent grace. More crucially, the dedication of Barnabas to his family, which here, as always, keeps him from being the monster he fundamentally is (fan confession: the first extended scene between Barnabas and Elizabeth was exactly what I wanted/needed from this movie, and Depp and Pfeiffer just nail it). Pfeiffer's wounded strength, and the way Burton films her on Collinwood's main staircase. The lone tree on Widow's Hill, and the watery tragedy beneath. The curious, but keenly felt, kinship between Barnabas and David. The gentle lapse of familial duty into unconditional love. These and many other moments are realized with reverence, and eagerly shared by Burton, Depp, and company. As challenging as it is to see through all of the haze and meddling, there is real love for the source material here. The suits signed off on it, but generous eyes and heart reveal that they didn't quite kill it. Collinwood remains. This fan cried. And the Collinses endure.