I was invited to an early screening of DARK SHADOWS last night in Burbank, CA. This is Tim Burton's version of the gothic soap opera that ran on television from 1966 to 1971. I don't know much about the original series or what the tone might have been, but this version is most definitely a comedy, and a pretty damned funny one. The lead character here is the vampire Barnabas Collins, played by Johnny Depp looking like the bastard child of Morticia Addams and Marilyn Manson. The film opens with a flashback narrated by Depp, showing a young Barnabas and his family leaving England for the New World in the late 1700's. We see the Collins family make their fortune and home in America, watching as Barnabas grows up to be a young man, and quite the heartbreaker. He eventually breaks the heart of the wrong woman, a beautiful servant girl named Angelique (played by Eva Green) who also happens to be a powerful witch. She curses Collins, destroying his family and the woman he loves before turning Barnabas into a vampire. Before long, Barnabas finds himself at the hands of an angry mob led by Angelique and is buried in a chained casket condemned to spend eternity in darkness.
We move forward in time to 1972 where a mysterious young woman named Victoria (Bella Heathcoate) arrives at the Collins mansion hoping to serve as a nanny to the youngest of the family's children. Michelle Pfeiffer plays Elizabeth, matriarch of the Collins clan, who lives in the mansion with her ineffectual husband, Roger (Johnny Lee Miller), and their two children, David (Gulliver McGrath) and Carolyn (Chloe Moretz).
Things get shaken up for the family when Barnabas, freshly dug up from his tomb by an ill-fated construction crew, also arrives at the mansion seeking to honor his duty to help save the dying family business and, more importantly, to get revenge against Angelique, who is still hanging around after two hundred years and more powerful than ever.
Now this film wasn't quite the gothic horror movie I was expecting, even though Burton brings that kind of creepy atmosphere to it. It's more of a horror comedy, closer in tone to "Beetlejuice" or "The Addams Family," only a little sexier and with implied violence. There are the usual 'fish out of water' moments as Barnabus tries to wrap his head around the modern world of the 1970's. At one point he mistakenly believes his 15-year old niece is a prostitute because of her skimpy outfits and later attacks a television set showing a performance by The Carpenters (most things he can't understand he interprets as Satan). Depp makes those moments work wonderfully because he plays Barnabas with such earnestness that you can't help but like the guy, even when he's kind of an asshole (he does kill several people).
There's even a really funny performance by Jackie Earl Haley as the surly groundskeeper of the Collins estate who gets hypnotized into becoming Barnabas's drunken version of Renfield. On a comedic level the movie does work, but there's a romantic angle between Barnabas and Victoria that just falls flat. The film seems to focus on the character of Victoria at the beginning and we're first introduced to the quirky Collins family through her, but once Barnabas shows up it's Depp's show and Victoria becomes marginalized. Her character almost disappears into the background until she's needed to be the love interest for Barnabas. Even then, it's a few brief scenes, too quick to buy into their romance.
I don't know if this version is anywhere close to what the source material was like, but I can honestly say that I really enjoyed it and that it does have some great laughs in it. As long as the marketing stays true to the comedic nature of the movie and doesn't try to sell it as purely a horror film, I can't see this failing to be a hit.