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Dark Shadows (A Movie Review)

Dark Shadows

Dark Shadows


Starring Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Jackie Earle Haley, Jonny Lee Miller, Chloë Grace Moretz. Bella Heathcote, Gulliver McGrath, Ray Shirley, Ivan Kaye, Susanna Cappellaro, William Hope, Hannah Murray, Guy Flanagan, Christopher Lee, Alice Cooper, Lara Parker, David Selby, Kathryn Leigh Scott and Jonathan Frid.

Screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith.

Directed by Tim Burton.

Distributed by Warner Bros.  113 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

Remember when Tim Burton actually had his own ideas?  It seems a long time ago now, but early on in his career he came up with interesting, twisted, original stories like Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas and even PeeWee’s Big Adventure.  However, for the last decade or more, Burton – usually with his favorite leading man Johnny Depp – has become Hollywood’s go-to guy for updating classic stories, whether in literature (Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice and Wonderland, James and the Giant Peach, Big Fish), film (Planet of the Apes), musicals (Sweeney Todd), comics (the two Michael Keaton Batman movies) or television (this movie).  Even his upcoming animated film, Frankenweenie, is an update of his first student film.

Burton and Depp’s latest reclamation project is the popular 60s-70s horror soap opera Dark Shadows.

If you have seen the trailer, you can already tell that the film can’t quite decide if it wants to be a fish-out-of-water comedy or a more serious update of the very somber original series, and this lack of direction turns everything into a bit of a mess.  In fairness, the film is not nearly as much of a goofy comedy as that short preview suggests, but the comic aspects are definitely there and still feel awkward.  If you are going to turn a cheesy old title into a comedy, you can’t be timid about it, you have to go whole hog (see the Brady Bunch movies or even the Farrelly Brothers’ flawed but heartfelt revamp of The Three Stooges).

Dark Shadows tries to mix its wacky hijinks in with some actual supernatural gothic scares and shocks – mild ones, but that is strangely faithful to the original series’ TV roots.

It may be a harbinger of bad things that the original TV Barnabas, Jonathan Frid, died just a couple of weeks before this new movie came out in theaters.  That’s not necessarily to say Frid had a problem with the direction of this reboot – after all he does appear here in a cameo as a party-goer with three other former series regulars – but it does feel oddly symbolic.

For the movie Dark Shadows has almost nothing in common with its television ancestor, other than one or two character names.  Even the movie’s slick and expensive sets and effects show little understanding of the low-tech, ultra-low-budget background of the show, which was one of the first syndicated series on TV and made on a shoe-string.  I’d be willing to bet that the craft services (catering) bill for this movie probably cost more than the entire six-year, 1,225 episode run of the series.

The movie’s schizophrenic vibe starts with the frame story – a flashback to the 1770s in which a young businessman named Barnabas Collins (Depp) gets into a bit of a love triangle with the beautiful love of his life named Josette (Bella Heathcote) and a young, beautiful, evil witch named Angelique (Eva Green).  The witch puts a spell on Josette, causing her to take her own life, then turns Barnabas into a vampire (I didn’t think that was how people became vampires) and has him buried undead for all eternity.  This is all done in a very quick (five minutes or so), very overwrought manner.

All eternity ends up lasting less time than you would think, when Barnabas’ coffin is mistakenly dug up just under 200 years later.  Barnabas returns to his family estate, only to find that it is in severe disrepair, the family business is nearly broke and the only remaining relatives in the castle are a middle aged mother (Michelle Pfeiffer), her bratty teen daughter (Chloë Grace Moretz), a weaselly uncle (Jonny Lee Miller) and a disturbed young nephew (Gulliver McGrath) whose mother disappeared mysteriously.

What year is this? Barnabas asks.  1972.

Cue lots of Carpenters, lava lamp, Scooby Doo!, T-Rex and polyester jokes.  Occasionally they are even funny, if rather obvious – like when Barnabas sees Karen Carpenter on television and freaks out that she is some sort of evil tiny songstress or when he refers to singer Alice Cooper as the ugliest woman he has ever seen.  But the 70s nostalgia stuff gets way stale quickly, not to mention the fact that many of songs the film plays and the things the movie mocks are from after the movie’s 1972 time setting.

By strange coincidence, the boy’s nanny Victoria is a direct descendant (and complete spitting image) of his love Josette (also played by Heathcote).  To make things even more complicated, the town is run by an apparently immortal Angelique, who has made it her business to bankrupt the Collins while she thrives.  Yet it appears after all these years she loves Barnabas.  And he still loves Josette, who he now sees in Victoria.  But can a vampire romance a human nanny, or should he just settle for an eternity of awesome hate-sex with his nemesis Angelique?

You can see what’s coming from a mile away.  However, the film’s complete inability to juggle its comic, dramatic and horrific moments make it nearly impossible to build up any real rooting interest for any of these characters.

The TV series, for all its cheesiness, crappy sets and technical faux pas, at least knew how to do that.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2012 All rights reserved. Posted: May 11, 2012.

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