I saw Dark Shadows this weekend-- when you have little girls, the prospect of going to a new movie relates less to when the movie opens than when you can find a babysitter-- and I loved it. Right at the start, as director Tim Burton's camera follows a train through New England woods to the haunting sounds of the Moody Blues, I turned to my wife and said, "Okay, I already want this on Blu-Ray."
Mind you I'm a huge fan of the 1960s soap opera, though I came to it late, and that should actually count against this film. I was a huge fan of the 1960s show The Avengers, and I was expecting to hate the 1998 movie version even before it turned out to be terrible. I felt the same way about The Saint, which updated the -- hey!-- 1960s detective series starring pre-Bond Roger Moore, in a role so full of wit and irony it was probably better for him than Bond.
But Tim Burton's Dark Shadows doesn't make the mistakes that The Avengers and The Saint make, for several reasons. For one thing, both of those movies seemed to have been written by people with only a cursory knowledge of the source material, as if maybe they'd read a memo prepared by a staffer. The Avengers made no attempt to copy the smirking flirtation between Steed and Peel or the fun rhythm of the show, and the Saint was a generic actioner that tossed the detective stories that always propelled that show. But there was something worse: if you knew nothing about the source material, you were left with weird, bad movies that existed for no reason anyone could make out. (And my gosh, the Avengers is terrible. Go back and watch it and let me know if you don't think it might be missing a reel somewhere.)
Dark Shadows, though; this is something else. I had fears it would be Avengers bad when I heard it would be a comedy. Dark Shadows was never played for laughs in the 60s. If you watch it on Netflix-- and really you totally should, starting with Episode 211, when Barnabas first appears-- you'll see what an oddball piece it was, so perfectly gothic, narrated by a young governess who has, in fine gothic tradition, come to a great house of dark secrets. It is in black and white, on strange wobbly sets, filmed live-to-tape, and there's a wonderful feeling that this that you're looking at is another, stranger world you can get lost in. Look at the number of Barnabas' entrance-- the show had already run for over 200 episodes before the secretive vampire first appeared, run with its world of crashing surf and ghosts who walked.
Barnabas the vampire took it up a notch, though, scheming against members of the family and longing for the return of his beloved Josette. He was a stone killer, too.
(There was also one movie based on the soap already, in 1970-- see my blog post about House of Dark Shadows.)
Tim Burton's Dark Shadows knows the whole terrain of the show, and it knows more. It knows that it can have it both ways, parodying the show while constantly showing such familiarity that the jokes feel genuinely affectionate. It knows that somehow 1972 is funnier than 1966, so we get to see Barnabas come back to a world of the Carpenters and Alice Cooper. It knows that Johnny Depp is not Jonathan Frid, so his Barnabas is completely different-- a hilarious meditation on vampires in general, a reptilian, cursed, alien creature, whereas Frid's Barnabas was a rather discreet vampire most of the time, no more alien than JR Ewing. Depp is funny here, and is in almost every scene.
And man, it knows the gothic tradition. The brooding house, the tortured young ingenue, the secret pathways. If you feel you've seen all of Burton's tricks before, think of it this way: all of his tricks belong here, in Dark Shadows.
Fans of the show should love this adoring letter to Collinwood.