Movie Reviews
3:46 pm
Thu May 10, 2012

'Dark Shadows': A Remake Lacking Life And Luster

Originally published on Fri May 11, 2012 4:52 pm

Putting together a Halloween costume must be a breeze at Johnny Depp's house. Forget pirate Jack Sparrow. If you just took a few of the characters he's played for director Tim Burton — the Mad Hatter, mad barber Sweeney Todd, mad candymaker Willy Wonka, and those two mad Eds, Wood and Scissorhands, you'd have a whole closetful of costuming possibilities.

To which the star now adds Dark Shadows' madly aristocratic vampire Barnabas Collins, onetime heir to Collinwood Mansion and, for roughly two centuries, buried alive — or at any rate undead — before being unearthed by a decidedly unfortunate construction crew.

Depp, who as a kid was reportedly obsessed with Barnabas on the Gothic daytime soap that inspired this campy big-screen redo, is clearly delighted to be sinking his teeth into the role. But Burton and the rest of the cast seem less sure why they're there, and audiences may well feel the same way.

The action begins with an 18th century prologue, played straight — young Barnabas setting sail from Liverpool for Maine, where his family will establish a fishing village, and where he will make the mistake of sleeping with but not falling for a witchy servant girl named Angelique (Eva Green). She turns him into a vampire, giving him eternal life, and then buries him alive to give him time to reconsider.

Released from the coffin in 1972, he discovers that things have changed a bit. Cars, lava lamps, hippies — there's a lot for an undead 18th century gentleman to take in, including his family's diminished circumstances. Angelique, also being immortal, has gone into competition with the Collins fishing biz and more or less bankrupted Barnabas' last few distant relatives, who live in a now-dilapidated Collinwood Mansion that Barnabas regards, optimistically, as a fixer-upper.

Much is made of Barnabas' antiquated speech patterns, pre-Victorian views and unfamiliarity with 1970s slang.

"Are you stoned?" wonders his great-great-great-grandniece. "They tried stoning me," he replies. "It did not work."

All of which makes Tim Burton's Dark Shadows more a vampire-out-of-water story than a homage to the original TV show, or a trek through the Buffyverse. It's stately with a smirk, crossing Bram Stoker with The Addams Family to arrive at what sometimes feels like a wildly overproduced Saturday Night Live sketch.

Screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith also has Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter coming out later this summer, so he'll have a chance to tap another vein, as it were, of vampire myth. Here, despite the presence of Helena Bonham Carter and Michelle Pfeiffer as harpies of differing stripes, plus Jackie Earle Haley as a modern-day servant and cameos by the likes of Christopher Lee, Alice Cooper, and Jonathan Frid — the original Barnabas, who died just weeks before the film's debut — the jokes only really have bite when they're being deftly undersold by Depp.

The film is otherwise handsome, vaguely true to the old soap opera, and inert. Toward the end of the movie, Burton offers some visual nods to Nosferatu, Hitchcock's Rebecca and, of all things, Death Becomes Her, suggesting that at some point he may have had broader satirical notions batting around his head. What he's actually put on-screen, unfortunately, is just kind of batty.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. The gothic soap opera "Dark Shadows" became a cult hit in the 1960s when it introduced supernatural creatures to daytime television. As a little boy, Johnny Depp was obsessed with the show. Now, critic Bob Mondello says he gets to sink his teeth into one of its characters.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Putting together a Halloween costume must be a breeze at Johnny Depp's house. Forget pirate Jack Sparrow. If you just take a few of the characters he's played for director Tim Burton - the Mad Hatter, mad barber Sweeney Todd, mad candymaker Willy Wonka and two mad Eds, Wood and Scissorhands - you have a whole closet-full of costuming possibilities, to which we can now add a madly aristocratic vampire, the onetime heir to Collinwood Mansion, Barnabas Collins, who is thoroughly annoyed of having been rendered immortal and then buried alive by a witch.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DARK SHADOWS")

JOHNNY DEPP: (as Barnabas Collins) Locked in a box for 200 years.

EVA GREEN: (as Angelique Bouchard) Don't exaggerate, it was only 196.

DEPP: (as Barnabas Collins) It was an eternity. I shall have you tried for witchcraft and burnt at the stake.

GREEN: (as Angelique Bouchard) Poor sweet Barnabas, things have changed while you were taking your little nap.

MONDELLO: The year is 1972, and things have indeed changed - cars, lava lamps, hippies - there's a lot for an undead 18th-century gentleman to take in. But Barnabas, who sees the now-dilapidated Collinwood Mansion as a fixer-upper, will do his best to rescue his penniless family, even if distant relatives, like his teenaged great-great-great-great-grandniece, find his pre-Victorian views a bit perplexing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DARK SHADOWS")

DEPP: (as Barnabas Collins) What is your age, if I may?

CHLOE GRACE MORETZ: (as Carolyn Stoddard) Fifteen.

DEPP: (as Barnabas Collins) Fifteen and no husband. You must put those birthing hips to good use at once lest your womb shrivel up and die.

MORETZ: (as Carolyn Stoddard) You're weird.

MONDELLO: As you can hear, Tim Burton's "Dark Shadows" is more a vampire-out-of-water story than it is an homage to the original TV show or a trek through the hipper worlds of "Twilight" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." It's stately with a smirk, crossing Bram Stoker with The Addams Family to arrive at what sometimes feels like an overproduced "Saturday Night Live" sketch.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DARK SHADOWS")

HELENA BONHAM CARTER: (as Dr. Julia Hoffman) He told me everything, including the fact that you've known his secret since the minute he arrived. Why the hell didn't you say anything?

MICHELLE PFEIFFER: (as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard) I was protecting the children.

CARTER: (as Dr. Julia Hoffman) Oh, by letting a vampire use one of the guest bedrooms.

MONDELLO: Screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith also has "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" coming out later this summer, so he'll have a chance to tap another vein, as it were, of the vampire myth. Here, despite the presence of Helena Bonham Carter and Michelle Pfeiffer, the jokes only really have much bite when they're being cleverly undersold by Johnny Depp. The film is otherwise handsome, vaguely true to the old soap opera, and inert. Toward the end of the movie, Tim Burton offers some visual nods to "Nosferatu," Hitchcock's "Rebecca" and, of all things, "Death Becomes Her," suggesting that, at some point, he may have had broader satirical notions batting around his head. But what he's actually put on screen is just kind of batty. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.