While I’m beginning to tire of the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp combination, I’m happy to say that Dark Shadows escapes the stereotypes commonly associated with the director/actor duo. Well…most of them, anyway.
Johnny Depp plays a man who’s been turned into a Nosferatu-esque vampire by a witch, then damned to be buried in a coffin for 200 years. After being accidently released by a group of construction workers in 1972, he returns to his family’s illustrious estate, once the center of a fishing company that was responsible for the rapid growth of a town in Maine. He joins his family’s modern descendants in an effort to bring back their former glory, and to stop a rival fishing company’s baroness who happens to be the very woman that cursed him centuries prior.
Depp plays a role we’ve seen him do time and again: a pale, well-spoken tortured soul with a magnetic personality and a hint of goofiness. His interactions with the modern world are based in curiosity, rather than confusion; he makes every effort he possibly can to understand the era he finds himself in while still holding on to the ideals and customs of his old life. Depp’s lines are well written, and delivered with a wry smile and the kind of facial expressions he’s become well known for (furrowed brow, wide eyes, etc.) Despite being the central character in the film, he is but one part of an entire cast of characters that mesh together well, from the drunken caretaker of his family’s home (played by Jackie Earle Haley, famous for portraying Rorschach in the Watchmen movie) to one of his family’s modern members (played in perfect asshole-ish fashion by an aging Johnny Lee Miller, aka Zero Cool from Hackers) to the current head of the family (played by Michelle Pfeiffer, known for…well, a lot.) A host of other actors show up, ranging from William Hope (Hellraiser II) to Christopher Lee (everything) to Chloë Grace Moretz (Kick Ass).
One star that may be overlooked is the massive Collins Family home, a sprawling New England castle filled with gorgeous wood floors, massive carvings, and secret passageways galore. Not only does the house serve as a primary location for the film, but it feels almost alive, as if the walls could breathe and the ceilings could speak. I’m not sure if the interior of the house was filmed in an actual mansion, or if it was created with massive sets, but either way, it’s a stunning piece of architecture. The layout itself screams classic horror, and could likely serve as the basis of several haunted house styled movies. Despite its sprawling and opulent nature, I feel like the house wasn’t explored nearly as much as it could have been. Aside from a few specific plot points, the house is presented merely as a setting, rather than the character it appears to be.
Homages to various other movies (mostly horror) abound. In my first viewing, I noticed throwbacks to The Exorcist, Death Becomes Her, Evil Dead 2, Nightmare on Elm Street, Nosferatu, and oddly enough, Terminator 2. Most of these were done in single scenes, such as the wildly fun “sex” scene that took a page out of Nightmare on Elm Street, or the green muck vomited towards Johnny Depp’s character that looked like it could have been puked up by Regan from The Exorcist. The movie most often pulled is definitely Nosferatu, with Johnny Depp’s character clearly being styled after Max Schreck’s legendary performance. From his long and pointy fingers, to his facial expressions, to the way he pops up out of his casket, Depp has channeled Shreck with a high level of success.
As for the actual “horror” portion of the film, it’s not focused on too much, despite the gothic overtones prevalent throughout the movie. There are, however, some scenes that may frighten younger children…a particularly effective one portraying a ghost screaming straight at the audience, her voice a shrill cacophony of lord knows what. The closest the film reaches actual “horror” status is in the fantastic closing sequence, an epic battle that rips through the mansion as inanimate objects come alive and start attacking the cast. Despite being mostly CGI, this end sequence is extremely creative, and the guys that did the animating did a fantastic job of giving everything an unearthly glow. Nods to The Exorcist, Death Becomes Her, Evil Dead 2, AND Terminator 2 all appear rapid-fire over the course of 10 minutes, sometimes overlapping each other. Aside from The Exorcist, however, they are done with a muted intensity, and could easily be missed.
Some of the plot points feel like they appear out of thin air, although that could be a result of scenes that were cut…it certainly wouldn’t be the first time missing scenes contributed to confusion or under-explanation. Still, overall, this is a movie which strikes a perfect balance between seriousness and self-awareness, one which will keep you entertained throughout. I’m not sure I could say this is worth seeing in theaters, but it’s definitely worth seeing.