It goes without saying that, these days, your aren’t liable to see Tim Burton direct or write any original content, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t honed a strong ability to find source material tailored to his very distinct aesthetic. The 1960s/1970s TV series, Dark Shadows (created by Dan Curtis), was one of the earliest examples of ABC displaying renegade tendencies when it comes to picking up shows that very few other networks would have the bravery to consider (later examples of ABC’s singular programming would include Twin Peaks, My So-Called Life, Cop Rock!, and Pushing Daisies). And so it makes sense that Tim Burton, the champion of all projects underdog, would resuscitate the premise for his latest release.
For those unfamiliar with the soap opera, Curtis’ version of the show (originally written by Art Wallace) did not incorporate any supernatural aspects until six months into the series, when Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) first appeared in the show as a vampire. The film, conversely, emphasizes Barnabas’ history and how he came to be a vampire. Victoria Winters (Alexandra Moltke) is the main character in the soap opera, while, in screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith’s (known for his literary mash-up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, as well as the upcoming film, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) rendering features her as a supplemental love interest to Barnabas (Johnny Depp). Starting out as Maggie Evans (Bella Heathcote, who has appeared in a soap opera of her own, Australia’s widely popular Neighbours), she does not change her name to Victoria Winters in the film until applying for the governess position at Collinwood (in the show, Maggie Evans and Victoria Winters are two separate characters).
As she travels to Collinwood, she is aware of an undeniable pull toward Collinsport (the town in Maine named after the Collins family)–the reason for which we later learn is because of Josette du Pres (also played by Heathcote), a (friendly) ghost that has haunted her for most of her life. It takes Victoria time to realize that Josette was Barnabas’ former wife, forced to plummet to her death by Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), the evil witch who has made it her life’s passion to destroy Barnabas’ family and legacy. The point of Josette’s suicide is on the notorious cliff, Widows’ Hill, though, in the show this is where the Collinwood mansion is placed.
Another honorary member of the Collins clan is resident psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), who has been hired by the matriarch of the family, Elizabeth Stoddard Collins (Michelle Pfeiffer, in one of her more likable roles), to counsel her nephew, David (Gulliver McGrath), whose mother recently drowned at sea. Elizabeth’s daughter, Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz), also exhibits signs of mental instability, albeit in a much more teen angst sort of way.
When Barnabas is awakened from the coffin coma Angelique put him in, his first instinct is to return to Collinwood and reclaim the glory of his family name. Unmarred by the lax and unmotivated nature of his current living family members, Barnabas goes so far as to throw what he initially refers to as a ball, but what quickly turns into a happening (per Carolyn’s input) with a mirror ball and a performance by Alice Cooper (a real Billy Idol type in terms of looking pretty much the same à la The Wedding Singer). All of his efforts, however, are deterred by Angelique’s witchcraft; she is especially fond of reminding him that she’ll do to Victoria what she did to Josette–a threat that deeply troubles Barnabas. But, as you might guess, there is a solution to the problem of this lopsided love triangle.
Considering that Dark Shadows originally had 1,225 episodes, it is rather admirable that Burton and Grahame-Smith managed to consolidate it into one hour and fifty-three minutes. Nonetheless, there can be no denying that the unique quirkiness of the show has been lost in translation. Not to mention Burton’s increasingly tame interpretations of what constitutes darkness.