It may surprise you to hear this, but director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp have developed something of a working relationship. The general consensus is that they work together too often, Depp having played a major role in the filmmaker’s five most recent movies. This never bothered me as much – if Burton is going to keep making movies, he might as well involve an actor universally appreciated.
But however you feel, it’s hard to argue that Dark Shadows should have – or even could have – been made without Depp in the main role. Without him, it would have been a lost project without its guiding light.
Depp plays Barnabas Collins, the son of wealthy first generation Americans who build a fine life for their son. Their dreams for him are dashed, though, when Barnabas’ would-be lover – the immortal witch Angelique – reacts to his rejection by vamping him up and burying him for two-hundred years. He awakes in the early seventies to find Angelique has all but destroyed the Collins family business, and teams with the current generation of Collins to restore the family name to its former glory.
Not enough credit can be given to Depp for both defining and carrying the tone here. Depp rarely plays the straight man anymore, but he’s never been as off-the-rails goofy as he is in the white-make-up that covers his character’s face. He plays Vampire with some creepy omen, but mostly as a hopelessly out-of-touch wierdo that somehow manages not to freak others out – even while accusing other Angie of being a “whore of Beelzebub” with the legitimacy of Ron Burgandy when he demanded that Veronica Corningstone return to her home on Whore Island.
A lot of credit belongs to Seth Graham-Smith for conjuring quite a bit of this absurdly brazen language for Barnabas. And Burton, who’s become a fetishist of the bright and plasticy in his movies, gets some brownie points for focusing less on color and more on comedy. But Depp’s just-off delivery is the perfect accent to a film that could have gone dry or lost contact with reality without it.
Period fantasy soap isn’t exactly the easiest genre to take seriously, and the film appropriately dials down the serious quotient – but Dark Shadows is not the two-hour sillyfest the commercials make it out to be. Instead, it’s a very delicate but deliberate balance between meat and potatoes, and cheesy corn. It’s exaggerated and with laughs throughout, but never feels like the definitive aspect to the story.
It’s hard to define Dark Shadows – sometimes it feels too committed to faithfully adapting the series, with needless characters and pointless Deus ex machina. There’s nothing at the center of the film that ties it all together, or even gives it purpose. But for what it is – an excuse for Depp to play with Weird Laughs, and Burton to create an off-center early-70s landscape – it’s enough.