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DARK SHADOWS – The Review

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The history of cinema has had many long-running actor/director partnerships. What first springs to my mind is the long collaboration between actor John Wayne and director John Ford, which has inspired several film books and documentaries. More recently we’ve had the Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro team-ups ( although Leonardo DiCaprio may just catch up to Mr. D ). And now we have the eighth film that actor Johnny Depp has done with director Tim Burton since they first paired all the way back in 1990 for EDWARD SCISSORHANDS ( Wow! ). After films based on children’s books, a low-budget filmmaker’s life, and a Broadway musical what have the duo decided to tackle now? Why, it’s a classic cult TV show from the late 1960’s : DARK SHADOWS. What’s their take on this supernatural soap opera?.

Time for a bit of disclosure here. During its original run on ABC television, I was mad for this weird little show! My grade school was almost in my back yard, so I literally ran out those exit doors when the last bell rang in order to plant myself in front of the bulky console TV and get creeped out Monday through Friday. ” Dark Shadows ” was the brainchild of the late Dan Curtis, who went on to produce the original TV movies, ” The Night Stalker ” starring Darren McGavin as reporter Carl Kolchak and ” Trilogy of Terror ” with Karen Black fighting those vicious little dolls, in addition to the acclaimed mini-series ” The Winds of War ‘ and its sequel ” War and Remembrance “, and he also directed two feature films based on ” Shadows ‘ along with BURNT OFFERINGS. This daytime drama with elements of gothic romance was about to be cancelled when Curtis had a desperate, brilliant idea :  Let’s put a vampire into the show ! Unknown ( to US TV audiences ) actor Jonathan Frid was a sensation as the lovesick bloodsucker Barnabas Collins. The program became must-see viewing for young people everywhere ( it’s odd to recall that the fortysomething Frid was cover featured on teen fan magazines alongside the Monkees and Bobby Sherman ). And that canny Curtis helped unleash an avalanche of merchandising. Barnabas was the star of a daily newspaper comic strip, monthly Gold Key comic books, board games, model kits, record albums, and a long-running series of original paperback novels. And I had as many of them that I could lay my grubby little hands on! But these bright star burned briefly. Dark Shadows ended it’s five-year run in 1971, but like Mr. Collins it’s not been completely dead. Curtis spearheaded an NBC prime time remake in the early 1990’s and a TV movie in 2005. The original series has played om cable, been released on home video, and inspired fan conventions ( though not as many as ” Star Trek” ). Talk of a new big screen version has been kicking around for years. I was intrigued by Depp and Burton’s involvement and, like many fans of the original, were taken aback by the comedic tone of the trailer. But I must keep an open mind. This is intended for modern movie audiences who have probably never heard of the series. Ya’ know, this may work!

And then I finally viewed the new film. The plot tries to incorporate several storylines from the show’s early season. Prior to the opening titles, we are introduced to Barnabas as a young boy in Liverpool as he and his parents are about to begin their voyage to America. Also headed across the pond is young Angelique Bouchard and her mother , who will work as a servant to the Collins family. The young lass is already smitten with the dark-haired boy. Upon their arrival in Maine, the prosperous family begins a successful fishing business, establishes the city of Collinsport, and starts construction on the opulent Collinwood estate. Years later Barnabas ( Johnny Depp ) gives his heart to the lovely Josette ( Bella Heathcote ) and spurns the affections of Angelique ( Eva Green ). You know what they say about a woman scorned. Ms. A turns to witchcraft to end their romance and turn Barnabas into a vampire. Later she leads a group of torch wielding villagers to trap him in his coffin, bind it with heavy chains, and bury him in the deep woods. The film then jumps to hip, happenin’ 1972. Victoria Winters arrives in the town in answer to a  child care help wanted ad. She finds Collinwood a dark, gloomy shell of its former glories. Victoria first encounters Willie ( Jackie Earle Haley ) who is the estate’s main caretaker along with the doting, elderly Mrs. Johnson. Seems only four Collins family members occupy the great mansion:  matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard ( Michelle Pfieffer ), her rebellious teenage daughter Carolyn ( Chloe Grace Moretz ), Elizabeth’s brother Roger Collins ( Jonny Lee Miller ) and his pre-teen son David ( Gulliver McGrath ). Also living there in order to treat David’s emotional issues ( he sees his deceased mother ) is the hard-drinking Dr. Julia Hoffman ( Helena Bonham Carter ). Later that evening a construction crew working in the woods outside Collinwood unearths a coffin wrapped in chains. To their regret, they sever the bonds and release a famished Barnabas. After a culture shock stroll through town, he returns to his ancestral home. He makes Willie his hypnotized servant, strikes a deal with Elizabeth, and vows to restore both the estate and the family fishing business. Only one thing stands in his way ( besides that nasty thirst ) – a rival seafood cannery run by the still youthful and gorgeous Angelique, who has convinced the town that she’s just the latest in a long line of family moguls. Oh, and it turns out that Victoria is the spitting image of the vamp’s long-lost love Josette. Can Barnabas Collins turns things around for the family while romancing a new/old flame and staying a step ahead of his spell casting nemesis?

I may have made this flick sound more exciting than it really is. At two full hours, you’ll feel as though you’ve been chained inside a buried casket. Perhaps it needed a merciless editor, or, more likely, a couple more passes at this unwieldy script. Much is made of the Barnabas/Victoria romantic subplot, but she seems to vanish for a good half hour while more time is devoted to the tiresome antics of Angelique. There’s not one, but two big confrontation scenes in her company boardroom. This affords the filmmakers a chance to indulge in some juvenile sex jokes, as seen in the trailer when the two enemies give in to passion ( with a nod to the Catwoman lick from Burton’s BATMAN RETURNS ). There’s even more coarse sex gag ( literally ! ) with the doctor. Really guys? Seems the ladies find the bloodsucker irresistible even with pounds of clown white covering his mug ( in the TV show Frid looks like an average Joe till he bared his fangs ), and a dark airbrushed streak down his cheekbones. The seventies era is reconstructed well, although items like lava lamps and troll dolls appear in order to garner easy laughs. As does a TV performance by the Carpenters on an old-fashioned color TV. Speaking of music, I was let down by the usually reliable Danny Elfman. He uses a few music cues from Robert Colbert’s classic TV score, but the show’s main theme is never heard. Instead we get lots of FM-style classic rock ( ” Nights in White Satin ” over the main titles? Okaaay ). However I did enjoy seeing the real Alice Cooper recreating his early performances.

Speaking of performances, the actors make a valiant effort with the meager source material. Depp seems to be enjoying his role immensely, although at times he seems to be doing mix of his James Barrie and Sweeney Todd while strutting about in his odd costume choices ( at least he kept the wolf’s head cane ). Pfeiffer has little to do until the messy finale. It’s hard to accept her in this matronly part.Moretz is one of our most promising young actors, but here she’s trapped as a sullen, surly teenager. Miller and Carter are there to model funny 70’s fashions and be funny, sleazy types while mugging at the camera. Heathcote is a lovely ingenue, but sets off no real sparks with Depp. Neither does the usually engaging Green whose witch character becomes a campy, cartoon villainess who’s more tedious than menacing. When it comes to screen menace, few actors are greater than 60’s and 70’s vampire movie icon Christopher Lee, who graces the screen in an all too brief cameo. But the best cameo may be that of cast members from the original TV series : Kathryn Leigh Scott ( Victoria ), David Selby ( Quentin ), Lara Parker ( Angelique ) and Barnabas himself, the late great Jonathan Frid who passed away just weeks ago. Kudos for including this brief nod.

Tim Burton has always been stronger with visuals than narrative, so it should come as no surprise that the big finale is so disjointed. One big reveal of a family member’s secret pounces in from left field. The film’s opening scenes seem to have the proper dramatic tone, but once Mr. B returns home, everything is jokes- the 70’s decade kitsch , sex patter, and whoosing cartoon sound effects. That’s not to say that the original TV show wasn’t funny. Rewatching the series on DVD, you’re struck by the cheesy effects, flimsy sets, often hammy acting, and overwrought dialogue ( the show was shot live on tape, so many flubs are preserved ), but the producers were striving for more than cheap laughs. Sometimes a dramatic TV show can be transformed into an enjoyable big screen comedy, like 1987’s DRAGNET and the recent 21 JUMP STREET. Here everything seems forced. A friend recently asked, ” Fans of the original won’t appreciate the comic tone, young moviegoers don’t know of the old show, so who did Johnny and Tim make this for? “. I believe they really made it for themselves and only their most hardcore fans may join them. For the rest of us…well, uh, at least Barnabas isn’t sparkly!

Overall Rating: 1.5 Out of 5 Stars

 

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.

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