Tim Burton’s ‘Dark Shadows’: Just How Dark Is It?

Early chatter indicates a film in the vein of 'Sleepy Hollow' with both farcical and 'full-bodied horror' elements.
By John Mitchell

Johnny Depp and Michelle Pfeiffer in "Dark Shadows"
Photo: Warner Bros.

The death of actor Jonathan Frid, the original Barnabas Collins, makes this a sad week in the "Dark Shadows"-verse. The 87-year-old, classically trained actor passed away at a hospital in Hamilton, Ontario, on April 13 after a fall at his home. Frid cameos in Tim Burton's big-screen adaptation of the '60s soap opera, which hits theaters on May 11. It will be his final screen appearance.

"Jonathan Frid was the reason I used to run home from school to watch 'Dark Shadows,' " the film's star, Johnny Depp, told the LA Times in an e-mail from the Arizona set of "The Lone Ranger." "His elegance and grace was an inspiration then and will continue to remain one forever more. When I had the honor to finally meet him ... [he] generously passed the torch of Barnabas."

We hope Frid, who maintained a long, loving and appreciative relationship with "Shadows" fans, had a chance to see at least a rough cut of the anticipated flick. Some early reviews trickling out indicate it is quite different from what the trailers, TV commercials and print advertisements would have us think.

Two weeks back, after hearing Burton regular Danny Elfman's menacing score and noting that it in no way lined up with the gonzo comedy the trailer seemed to be selling, we wondered if maybe the clip was cut to appeal to the broadest possible audience without much regard for the tone of the film itself. After all, a Gothic horror-comedy with a deep and dramatic back story is a much harder sell than a broad and cartoonish farce about an 18th Century vamp trying to get used to the electronic contraptions, female doctors and cars of the 1970s.

If the early buzz is any indication, we were right.

In a series of tweets (which have since been pulled down; lucky for us others cleverly snapped them up), Entertainment Weekly senior writer Anthony Breznican, who has seen the movie, shared his thoughts and they reveal a more complex and ambitious film that is alternately dark and absurd (in what sounds like a great way).

"I've seen final cut of 'Dark Shadows.' Tone similar to Burton and Depp's 'Sleepy Hollow' — lots of humor, but with menacing, atmospheric edge," Breznican wrote. "In 'Dark Shadows,' there's an absurdist bent to the monster element. The creatures of the night are adrift in the self-obsessed world of 1970s ... In typical Burton fashion, humans are scarier than the fiends. If u want 'Interview w the Vampire,' that movie exists. This is a more wry take."

Most telling though, Breznican wrote, "If you dig screenwriter [Seth Grahame-Smith's] style w Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter then 'Dark Shadows' will be to your liking, too."

Grahame-Smith is a master of mixing comedy and drama with thrills and chills, as his books "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" and "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" display. It's a fact seconded by an anonymous source from Hollywood Elsewhere, who's also seen the film. "While it has 'Beetlejuice' elements, this is not a broad comedy. It's a gothic romance with strong farcical elements, but the trailer makes it seem like 'Love at First Bite' and it definitely is not," Hollywood Elsewhere wrote.

"The anachronism-based humor does work quite well. The film is funny, but it also has full-bodied horror elements," the tipster continued. "In short, there's more of the Burton 'Sweeney Todd' than the trailer implies. This is not Burton's 'Addams Family,' but a successful amalgamation of his comedic and gothic horror styles."

The tipster also adds that three-time Oscar nominee Michelle Pfeiffer is a standout, calling her performances as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard "her strongest work in years." So there you have it. Fans of the show can breathe a sigh of relief, because it's sounding more and more like justice has been done to their beloved cult soap opera. Burton maniacs can go back to being excited for his return to the darker, more Gothic terrain where he's done his best and most interesting work. My "The Fabulous Baker Boys,""Dangerous Liaisons," "The Age of Innocence," "One Fine Day," "White Oleander" and "Stardust" all-day Saturday marathon can proceed as scheduled. And, of course, the talented Jonathan Frid's final screen appearance will be a fitting and appropriate return to the story he seemed to love so much.

Fans of the show, does buzz that the film has a darker side than we're seeing in the ads make you feel any better? Let us know in the comments below and tweet me at @JohnMitchell83 with your thoughts and suggestions for future columns! comments!

Check out everything we've got on "Dark Shadows."

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