On Adapting a Gothic Soap Classic: Why I Have Hope for Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows

by: Shelly Phillips

I should probably start off this article by stating two facts:

  1. I am probably one of the few twenty-somethings who was completely addicted to the original Dark Shadows gothic soap opera (thanks to the fact that the Syfy Network ran it on reruns in the nineties!).
  2. In general, I am not a huge fan of Tim Burton and am often of the opinion that he usually bastardizes any book or franchise that he brings to film (his Batman movies were absolutely terrible; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory almost ruined Willy Wonka for me forever; and Sleepy Hollow—well, that just never should have been made).

So, when I heard that Tim Burton was the director of the new Dark Shadows film that is premiering on May 11, you can imagine that I felt a great deal of trepidation.

In retrospect, though, it makes sense that Tim Burton would direct this film.   The original show was dark (no pun intended, of course, but the show’s title nevertheless is quite apt) and downright scary at times.   In addition to vampires, other supernatural phenomena played a part in this gothic soap opera.  Ghosts, witches, warlocks, werewolves, zombies, time travel, and even a Frankenstein-like monster—Dark Shadows had it all!  But it was also deliciously campy and completely ridiculous at times.   Because of the way it was filmed, the show is riddled with errors à la M. Night Shyamalan’s major flop, Lady in the Water: props askew, microphone booms being featured prominently in the background.  Also, many of the actors would stumble or stutter through their lines in ways that were even obvious to me as an otherwise oblivious fifth grader.  Thus, when you take the film’s content, the shadowy (another unintended pun), supernatural atmosphere it embodies, and its campy, cult classic history, it almost seems like no other director but Tim Burton could bring Dark Shadows to film.

Burton, of course, is no stranger to depicting dark stories fraught with ghosts, vampires, and the like.  In fact, the majority of his films delve into such matters.  He’s also particularly adept at conveying scary stories in offbeat, kitschy, ridiculous ways (think of films such as Beetlejuice, Batman Returns, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and—shudder—Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).  Lastly, his films usually star Johnny Depp, who is the perfect fit to play Dark Shadows’s main character, the vampire Barnabas Collins.

What gives me pause is this: While the original Dark Shadow was campy, it took itself seriously.  It aimed to frighten audiences, and despite the filming errors and trippy storylines (it was a soap opera, after all), it often succeeded at doing so.  Even watching the opening credits of the original show still brings me chills:

Now, making films saturated in darkness is something that Burton can do, and often extremely well.  He was probably the only director who could do Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street justice.  What one especially notes in this film is that it is lacking the deliberate zaniness and the utterly bizarre touches that movies like Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas are filled with.  Therefore, it was certainly possible for Burton to make a Dark Shadows that could avoid playing on its campy origins and instead keep to the goal of the original show: to scare people.

But the trailer for the new Dark Shadows shows that Burton instead decided to play up the camp and turn this film into a humorous, outlandish romp.  He apparently has taken a scary TV show and turned it into one of his Beetlejuice-esque movies that does everything but take itself seriously.   Of course, I could be wrong; everything I am saying is based solely on the trailer.  But trailers usually exemplify the spirit of a movie, and the spirit that the trailer for Dark Shadows conveys is not scary, but joshing.

If anything, there are only two things which could redeem this movie—the first, of course, being Johnny Depp.  Ah, who doesn’t love Johnny Depp?  Unlike Robert Pattinson’s Edward Cullen (who comes across as nothing but a sparkling wimp with only one facial expression—the constipated wince—in comparison), Depp can actually play Barnabas Collins with picture-perfect skill.  Even though the Barnabas Collins he is portraying has less of the tortured affect and more of a comedic side than the original Barnabas Collins that was played by Jonathan Frid, I am nonetheless excited to see Depp depicting one of TV’s most beloved vampires (probably because—well, it’s Johnny Depp!).

The second thing that could redeem this movie is the fact that it will feature many of the same characters which were in the original show—Angelique Bouchard, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, David Collins, Victoria Winters, and Dr. Julia Hoffman.  In the end, the characters really made the original Dark Shadows the hit show it was.  Thus, while I anticipate finding myself cringing, wincing, and groaning throughout the new Dark Shadows, some part of me is also hoping that it won’t be as terrible as I am expecting—and that Burton could, in fact, be the best director to direct this film after all.

Shelly Phillips is an Ohioan who doesn’t really care about the Buckeyes, but is just a little too obsessed with all things British. She also enjoys traveling, reading, Chai tea lattes, and late-afternoon naps.

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