Everyone knows Tim Burton would much rather focus on the visual elements of his filmmaking than on insignificant trifles like plot, character development, and cohesion. This is especially true of his latest fantasia, Dark Shadows, but that doesn’t keep the film from being a spooky good time.
Based on a beloved occult soap from the ’60s that was as famous for its low-budget blunders as it was for its spine tingling twists, the film stars frequent Burton collaborator Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins, a vampire awakened from a 200-year-long slumber to find the world he once knew has been replaced by a much crasser one. Though the original series ended in 1971, this version of the story takes place in 1972, an era indulgently at odds with the industrious colonial time Barnabas represents. As Barnabas reunites with his down-on-their-luck descendants—Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz), David (Gulliver McGrath), and Roger (Jonny Lee Miller)—at his crumbling former estate, his efforts to restore the clan to their former glory result in a cavalcade of awkward fish-out-of-water scenarios.
While these constant clashes of old-world sensibilities against ’70s grooviness get repetitive and do very little to advance the flimsy plot, they also legitimately deliver fun, good-natured laughs at every turn. And from a design perspective, both the gothic and the modern elements Burton fuses together provide a visual feast from start to finish. Less successful is the film’s treatment of its supporting characters. When romance blossoms between Barnabas and governess Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), their connection is as inexplicable as the family’s blithe acceptance of his vampirism. And loose cannon psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), arguably the TV series’ most shrewdly formidable character, is absolutely wasted here—barely given enough context to exist in the film at all.
For fans of the original series like myself, however, none of these quibbles really matter. It’s thrilling to have this often-overlooked gem of popular culture revived on such a huge scale. And cameos by legends of the show’s original cast—the late Jonathan Frid, Kathryn Leigh Scott, Lara Parker, and David Selby—are icing on this sweetly satisfying cake. [Emily Rems]