Dark Shadows (Danny Elfman)

Final Musings: Dark Shadows is an effective combination of the previously established sounds for Sleepy Hollow and The Wolfman. The level of thought put into this score is rather admirable with well executed orchestrations and themes. But the lack of accessibility in the harsh electronic effects and the overbearing dissonance play to the score’s downfall. Nonetheless, with repeated listens, this score can offer a rewarding experience.

Dark Shadows is definitely one of the stranger things to have aired on daytime television back in the 60s. The gothic soap opera made quite the impression on its cult following with its bizarre supernatural elements and the memorable character of the 200 year-old vampire Barnabas Collins. Director Tim Burton was quite the fan himself so it wasn’t long before he would take premise under his wing for his own take on it. As with most Burton films, the film features great visuals and top-notch acting. But where the film really fails is the schizophrenic nature of the storyline and direction. Dark Shadows often varies between gothic fantasy, dark horror and outright comedy as it knows very little about what it wants to be. Luckily, Burton’s long time collaborator, Danny Elfman didn’t partake in this crisis. The composer wisely chose to keep the film grounded by scoring it as a straightforward Burton film of the horror fantasy genre. The resulting product is a rather effective score with far more direction than the film itself.

Dark Shadows has a rather well crafted score that has a fair amount of thought put into it. Firstly, it’s pretty clear that Elfman wanted to provide the movie with a dramatic musical atmosphere akin to Robert Cobert’s own work for the source material. Consequently, at several moments the score effectively emulates the sound of a soap opera, and in this regard, the orchestrations are executed with exquisite precision. The alto flute is used capably as a throwback to its popular status in the early 70s. It’s often utilized with echoing descending phrases as heard consistently throughout the work (developed in cues like “More the End?”).To go on, Elfman also expertly uses various electronic effects (often abrasive in nature) that include slurring electronic pitches and cackling sound effects to reflect the outlandish nature of this particular soap. The intention could not be clearer in moments like 1:04 in “The End?” (the bass in enhanced in a menacing melodramatic fashion so common in many of these melodramas) or 0:24 in “Barnabas Comes Home”. There are also other little nods like the emphasis on the vibraphones. And so its hard to deny that attention to detail in such retrospect is quite admirable.

Yet regardless of the musical approach of the score, this is still very much an Elfman work. Many of his classic trademark sounds flourish here.  From Sleepy Hollow in particular, you have the menacing choir in the “Prologue”, the dissonance in “Resurrection” and the majestic boy soprano work in cues like “Barnabas Comes Home” or “Roger Departs”. The melodramatic beauty and the choral work are all familiar to the composer’s career. But what really hits you immediately in its predominance is much of the score’s derivation from Elfman’s The Wolfman. Many of the score’s climactic peaks could be mistaken to be The Wolfman in a form of greater amplification. With blasting choir and invigorating pace, Elfman gives this previously established sound greater power and resonance in “Prologue” and “We Will End You!” amongst other cues. And while the primary themes are largely their own, there are several thematic constructs that are taken straight out of The Wolfman including a very familiar 3 note phrase from the score that was integrated into the main theme of Dark Shadows and the 4-note action ostinato that often accompanies it. On that note, Elfman also succeeds in giving the film the brooding atmosphere of Wojiech Kilar’s own work as heard in “Killing Dr. Hoffman”.

Thematically, Elfman chooses to represent the film with two primary themes. The main theme makes its debut at 0:31 in the prologue receiving its full incarnations later in the cue. The idea is used to represent the Collins family and Barnabas’ romantic interests through its varying melodramatic or more monumental appearances. The next major identity is Angelique’s theme. It makes its eerie debut on the alto flute at about 0:55 in the opening cue. Elfman uses this idea to musically represent the witchcraft of Angelique and the other supernatural elements present in the film. The score as a whole remains very loyal to these two themes. And while the themes are structurally simple; it’s rather impressive to note how cleverly Elfman manipulates them throughout the progression of the film. Both themes show great flexibility as displayed by the menacing brass statements of Angelique’s theme in “Resurrection” when compared to its more religious choral renditions of in “Roger Departs”.  Moreover, one might admire the malleability of the main theme from its explosive statements in the finale cues (which are quite gratifying) to the more reflective, romantic nature of its presence in cues like “Is It Her?”. The consistent variation of these themes is ultimately what binds the score together, thus successfully creating a smooth and steady album experience.

Muse on These:

-          Dark Shadows – Prologue

-          Burn Baby Burn/In-Tombed

-          Final Confrontation

-          Widow’s Hill – Finale

-          The End

However, while there is much to like in this score, Dark Shadows ultimately falls short due to its lack of accessibility. Listeners will find a hard time falling in love with the meandering cues of suspense and ambience like “Lava Lamp” or “Hypno Music”. There is also plenty of dissonance and ruckus created in an attempt generate the atmosphere of horror, but these attempts act as fairly overbearing moments of pain as exemplified by “Resurrection”. The biggest problem that listeners will probably have a hard time bearing is the electronic effects. While they are delivered appropriately to attune to the nature of Burton’s film, they really take away from the well-established fantastical sound of the remainder of the score. There are several moments where the grating synthetic attributes are unbearable as displayed in “Resurrection” or “House of Blood”. While, the electronic pitch slurs are far less harmful to the ears, they unfortunately act as unfavourable components without which the score that could have stood amongst the composer’s more satisfying accomplishments in the horror fantasy genre. At times though the pulsating bass in more pounding cues like “The End?” are good fun to listen to in their attempt to emphasize the outdated nature of the scores of these soaps. The whole “soap opera” approach to scoring this film might not play out to the pleasure of all listeners. These factors fundamentally deprive the score of its accessibility which at the close is rather detrimental to the score.

To sum it up, Dark Shadows is a score with great merit. There are plenty of highly enjoyable highlights to the score, especially in the second half of the score. Yet the score falters with its harsh electronics and dissonant attributes. It’s a tough album to sit through the first time around and will require patience on the listener’s part. And although the conclusive experience can be rewarding, the lack of accessibility prevents this score from attaining a notable position in Elfman’s colourful career.

Rating:  * * * 1/2

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2 Comments on “Dark Shadows (Danny Elfman)”

  1. AnSb says:

    Can anyone please tell me what was the music/tune playing when Barnabas bangs his head on the piano in despair and Elisabeth Collins turns it off?

  2. Nice review. Finally saw the film a week or two ago and listened to the score thru once. The film, as thus the score as well, suffers from a bit of a multiple personality disorder, jumping from camp to humor to melodramatic romance to outright horror violence. The score perhaps plays this all a bit straighter than the film itself, but it still feels a bit disjointed at times. Still I love Elfman’s efforts to replicate the older TV score feel, with the smaller ensemble and odd woodwinds, etc. I wish there had been more than the 2 themes to work with, but he does manage to play with them quite a lot. Need to keep listening to it, and hopefully I will be able to appreciate more of his thematic manipulations throughout.


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