Undead on Arrival: Tim Burton’s DARK SHADOWS on Blu-ray

Staked through the heart by critics and shunned by moviegoers like a garlic bialy at a vampire brunch, Tim Burton’s DARK SHADOWS was one of the more anemic blockbusters of the summer season.

After a disappointing $80 million domestic theatrical gross, the maddeningly misguided, comedic reimagining of the 1960s supernatural soap opera hit DVD and Blu-ray this week with little fanfare. And thus begins the final death rattle for another in a series of quickly forgotten, big budget reboots of classic TV shows. Remember the 2005 movie version of THE HONEYMOONERS with Cedric the Entertainer? Of course you don’t. The situation will likely be the same with DARK SHADOWS. Burton’s $150 million horror/comedy/romance is already quietly receding into history, while the original series continues to draw new fans on DVD and streaming – thanks in part (ironically) to attention generated from the film.

It didn’t have to be this way. With Johnny Depp headlining as 200-year-old vampire Barnabas Collins, a strong supporting cast led by Michelle Pfeiffer and Helena Bonham Carter, a score by Danny Elfman, and a story by John August (CORPSE BRIDE) and Seth Grahame-Smith (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) based on time-tested source material, Burton’s SHADOWS had all the makings of a summertime smash. But the final product is a creative catastrophe – a tonally inconsistent mishmash that failed to attract the uninitiated, while angering loyal fans of the original.

As one of those fans, I wanted nothing more than for this film to be a success. Dark Shadows has been my private guilty pleasure since I first discovered it in syndicated reruns thirty years ago, and I could not have been more enthusiastic when this project was first announced. Both Burton and Depp grew up on the original series, and have long proclaimed their affection for it. And, based upon comments Depp made after the death of original series star Jonathan Frid a month before the movie’s release, it’s clear he has great respect for the character and the legacy of the actor who first gave him life (or death, depending upon your perspective).

In fact, Depp’s portrayal of Barnabas – essentially a Jonathan Frid impersonation – is one of the few redeeming qualities of the film, which only serves to further frustrate fans who fantasize about what might have been. The brief cameo Frid shot last year with original cast members David Selby (Quentin Collins), Kathryn Leigh Scott (Josette), and Lara Parker (Angelique) further confounded us old-timers, who assumed that an ostensible embrace of the past by the filmmakers would extend to a respectful approach toward the subject mater. Sadly, it did not.

Early evidence indicated that Burton and Depp’s film would be a faithful homage, but somewhere along the way it morphed into an acrid potpourri – a comedy that wasn’t funny, a horror film that wasn’t scary, and a love story that appears to exist primarily on the cutting room floor. In an apparent effort to distinguish the film from the vampiric movie and TV glut of recent years, Warner Bros. and/or Burton rejected John August’s more traditional script, and instead allowed the project to devolve into a jokey farce, courtesy of “satirist” Seth Grahame-Smith. This, along with a sloppy disregard for the show’s mythology, and an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink screenplay, doomed the enterprise before it even saw the light of day (or 4k projectors).

The original Dark Shadows was a deadly serious enterprise, a 1,225-episode amalgam of horror, science fiction and Gothic romance, cobbled together on no budget in a tiny New York City TV studio. Frid, who had a love hate relationship with the show that made him famous, often referred to it as “a dark Brigadoon,” and it was an apt comparison. Despite the stage-bound setting and less-than-special effects, the TV series had a lightning-in-a-bottle charm and watchability that’s still captivating today, despite its analogue-era limitations. Dark Shadows remains the only daytime drama ever to be extensively rerun, released on home video and remade (both in feature films and on TV). Burton and Grahame-Smith might have been mindful of that before deciding they could do it better.

It’s not that Dark Shadows fans are unaccepting of differing approaches to the core story. Series creator Dan Curtis’ 1970 feature film adaptation of the TV show, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS (also coming to Blu-ray in a few weeks), threw out much of the TV plot and recast the anti-heroic Barnabas (again played by Frid) as a sadistic murderer, picking off Collins family members one by one. The 12-episode, 1990-91 NBC primetime remake starring Ben Cross (from CHARIOTS OF FIRE) also took liberties with characters and relationships, with varying levels of success. And novelizations, comic books, graphic novels, audio dramas and an un-sold 2004 television pilot for the WB all spun the canon in ways that suited specific creative goals. But all these iterations had one thing in common: respect for the source material. Regardless of how the director and star of the 2012 film may have felt toward the original, their film is an exercise in smirking mockery.

DARK SHADOWS opens in Liverpool in 1760, where young Barnabas Collins and his parents Joshua and Naomi embark for the new world. There they launch a fishing business, which begets a coastal town and a cavernous mansion on the cliffs. Barnabas falls for the young maiden Josette, but dallies with sexy servant Angelique, who happens to be the kind of girl you ought not cross. Barnabas’ parents are killed mysteriously, and Josette throws herself from the cliffs at Widow’s Hill, followed by her lover. Barnabas does not die from his injuries, because he can never die. He is now a vampire, thanks to a curse from the witch Angelique, who sics the townspeople on him and watches gleefully as they bury him alive in a chained coffin.

On TV, this origin story played out over five months and nearly 100 episodes. In the film it’s crammed into seven minutes and forty-five seconds – a whiplash inducing set-up that feels like skimming the Cliffs Notes before a big test. Setting aside the key (and unnecessary) changes to the show’s mythos, this opening sequence is one big head fake, establishing a tone that is immediately dropped after the credit sequence. It’s as if Tim Burton looked at the final product, disliked it, and tried to apologize with a prologue that felt more like the original.

I saw the film twice in theaters and paid attention to the audience as they watched the first eight minutes. There was much shifting in the stadium-style seats as viewers were forced to follow a complex narrative before they had even consumed their first fistful of $7 popcorn. There’s a rhythm to moviegoing, a narrative flow that we have come to expect, whatever the story is about. We’re not conditioned to pay such strict attention that early in a film, and the disconcertion appeared to leave some viewers wondering just what this film was going to be. And once they had been conditioned to expect a moody drama, the film transmogrified into a dark comedy.

Even as I write this, I remain utterly baffled by the creative decisions Tim Burton and his team made.

As the credits roll, we jump ahead to 1972, where governess Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcoate) comes to Collinwood to care for young David Collins (Gulliver McGrath). There she meets the family – matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer); her troubled teen daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz); smarmy brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller); David’s psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) and boozy handyman Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley). Barnabas is inadvertently released from his coffin by workmen, and proceeds to feed on them, with apologies.

“You can’t imagine how thirsty I am,” he quips.

Barnabas returns to Collinwood and introduces himself to Elizabeth, revealing that he is, in fact, a 200-year-old vampire. And this is where DARK SHADOWS officially goes off the rails. In every other version of the story, Barnabas is released from his coffin, poses as his ancestor, and struggles to hide his murderous secret. Here, his status as a charter member of the undead becomes a running joke, as Barnabas sleeps upside down like a bat, brushes his fangs and occasionally feasts on the local yokels.

This single creative decision changes the nature of the character far more than slathering Johnny Depp’s face with white pancake, or dressing him up to look like a dandified Michael Jackson. Making Elizabeth complicit also ruins the dynamic between Barnabas and Willie (who becomes his servant) and Dr. Hoffman (who tries to cure him, with disastrous results). It also turns Elizabeth into an accomplice in murder. And what does it accomplish? Absolutely nothing.

Soon after his return, Barnabas meets Angie (Eva Green), the owner of Angel Bay Seafood, who is, of course the same woman who cursed him so many years ago. Angelique’s quest for vengeance has essentially ruined the Collins family and turned Collinwood into a decrepit, decaying prison. Barnabas vows to return the family to its former glory and defeat his arch nemesis, and thus begins a story of the competition between two local canneries in Maine. I’m serious. With almost 600 hours of existing narrative to borrow from – stories of ghosts, vampires, werewolves, witches, warlocks, phoenixes, man-made monsters, time travel, possession, and every other supernatural topic known to man – Burton and Grahame-Smith decided that a cannery competition was a better choice.

Of course, Barnabas and Angelique find time to rekindle their love-hate relationship, but not before our hero notices that the pale-skinned new governess bears a striking resemblance to his long lost love Josette. Unfortunately, Burton gives Depp and Heathcoate little time to establish their relationship, which should be the core story of the film. Despite the narrative absurdity of a beautiful 20-year-old falling for a 200-year-old fop in clown makeup, Heathcoate and Depp do have chemistry. But far more time is spent on developing the antagonism between Barnabas and the (ostensibly) sexy vixen Angelique. Heathcoate is fine in the role of the distant, troubled governess, but Green is woefully miscast – screechy and shrill when she should be saucy and seductive.

Why Angelique is even in this movie is a worthwhile question. The character does not appear in the 1970 film adaptation, and is not featured on either version of the TV show into well into their respective runs. In fact, the excessive focus on her is the narrative straw that breaks the camel’s back – one too many things to focus on, especially when there’s a love story to be told between Barnabas and Victoria. It seems to me that Burton and the writers felt they needed a true, unadulterated villain in order to allow the occasionally murderous Barnabas to remain the unequivocal hero. Dan Curtis avoided this dilemma in HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS by allowing Barnabas to be both hero and villain, and the film was the better for it. Though it differed in tone from the TV series, that movie made a decision to appeal to an audience older than the primarily school-age viewership of the TV show, and became one of MGM’s most successful releases of the year.

Sadly, the same can not be said for Burton’s film. Before it’s all over, 90-year-old horror icon Christopher Lee wastes some of his remaining time as a decidedly non-horrific fisherman, Alice Cooper wastes the audience’s time by singing two(!) songs, one of the main characters becomes a werewolf, and the finale decomposes into a stunningly sloppy, CGI mess.

But it all looks great. The Blu-Ray transfer of the film is crisp and beautiful (if, at times, a bit dark) and the Blu-ray combo pack also includes a DVD copy, plus a code for a digital download. The Blu-ray includes five deleted scenes (which you can watch here for free), each about one minute in length, though nothing that offers any clues as to different directions the story might have taken. Are we really to believe that there were no scenes of Barnabas and Victoria that were cut? And if they were, why were they not included?

There are also nine short, behind-the-scenes packages, though offers more than a tacit acknowledgment of the classic TV series. Are we to believe that four stars of the original show traveled all the way to England to shoot cameos, and nobody interviewed them on video? And Warner Bros. couldn’t devote a minute or two to a memorial piece for Jonathan Frid, without whom none of this would have even happened?

I’ve tried for months to defend this film to angry original fans, to argue that even an unsuccessful movie increases the profile – and availability  – of our favorite show. And that’s true. Thanks to Tim Burton’s movie, we have a beautiful complete series box set from MPI Home Video that sold out its first pressing, two “best of” compilations, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS and its sequel NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS (sans vampires) coming to Blu-ray, and a variety of new books, comics, graphic novels and licensed products.

But I’m done being an apologist for Tim Burton’s DARK SHADOWS. And soon I will no longer have to be. This Blu-ray and DVD release marks the beginning of the end for a storyline none of us wish had happened – unless Warner Bros. looks at the fact that the movie made twice as much internationally as it did in the U.S., for a total gross (to date) of nearly $240,000 million. That’s not a huge profit in the movie business, but it may be enough to make them contemplate a sequel. How’s that for a cliffhanger?

About willmckinley

I'm a New York City-based writer, video producer, print journalist, radio/podcast host, and social media influencer. I've been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by Robert Osborne), NPR, Sirius Satellite Radio, and the official TCM podcast. My byline has appeared in Slate.com and more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News. I'm also a social media copywriter for Sony's getTV and a contributor to four film-and-TV-related books: "Monster Serial," "Bride of Monster Serial," "Taste the Blood of Monster Serial," and "Remembering Jonathan Frid."
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12 Responses to Undead on Arrival: Tim Burton’s DARK SHADOWS on Blu-ray

  1. It was stated at the press conference in LA that a bunch of material was cut. Pfeiffer made a point of saying that a lot of her best scenes were cut. I wish they’d just made a 3 hour long movie. Fans would have set through it if they’d gotten an actually dark and juicy Dark Shadows.

    I enjoyed the movie a lot but the screenplay was re-written by someone who had to do a crash course in the subject matter. And that’s where it suffered.

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks Jessica. I had not heard that comment from Michelle Pfeiffer. It seems more and more obvious that the fault for this debacle lies in the hands of Seth Grahame-Smith.

  2. Aurora says:

    Great post as always, Will. I really looked forward to watching the film and will still do so on demand or something but I go into it with low expectations.


  3. Angela DeAngelo says:

    Will I think this is by far the best review/discussion of the Burton DS Movie yet. You hit so many points – points that I share with you – about the short-comings of this movie, Burton & Depp. I attended my first DS Festival at Lyndhurst, NY this past July. Every year they have the Fest in the Summer on opposite coasts. This movie’s release prompted two festivals on both coasts. Had it not been for this movie, I wouldn’t have experienced the Fest this past Summer and I wouldn’t be anxiously awaiting the DVD releases of HODS and NODS. So there is reason to be thankful for this movie. And I can be. As long as you don’t make me watch it. Ever. Again. I saw it in IMAX and then on a drive-in screen in May. It didn’t get any better the second time around. Cameos were by far the worst disappointment of all.

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks Angela. I think that’s a great way to look at it. And I saw it THREE times, and the third time was definitely not the charm.

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks for the compliment, Angela. Much good has come from the Burton film, though the film itself isn’t good at all. People say they wish it had never come out. I don’t feel that way at all. But I do wish it was better.

  4. Sandi says:

    it’s here that I request a do over…I want it the way it SHOULD have been! If Barnabas can be brought back from the dead, then surely someone can see th flaw and try to get it right this time. I was watching DS as a teenager and a young Navy wife. I got my husband hooked on it to the point that I had to keep running scenerios going in letters to him while he was at sea to keep him up to date.(Which is why I am a writer today or so I tell my family). I was so excited when I heard that they were making this movie and never dreamed I would want to slink out a theater unseen and sick at heart! Thanks for a better rip on the movie than the movie proves to be

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks Sandi. That’s a great story. Don’t give up hope. A $250 million international gross for DARK SHADOWS leads me to believe that Warner Bros may still consider some sort of sequel, or other property, like a TV show. If they do that, it would likely not involve either Tim Burton or Johnny Depp, which might be for the best.

  5. Angie B. Collins says:

    Do i really saw sequel? you mean it would be done?

    • willmckinley says:

      Angie – I mean it COULD be done. I’m not saying it would be a good idea. I’m just saying that Hollywood is so bereft of good ideas now, that anything with a track record (and which has turned a profit, even a modest one) is fair game. We will see!

  6. Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows was remade to death! I purchased it cheap to view it and then gave it away.

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