Dark Shadows was the most addictive daytime drama of its time. The reason why audiences couldn’t get enough of the show was simple–unlike every other soap opera, with subplots involving infidelity, amnesia, abduction, and betrayal, Dark Shadows was about an elegant vampire named Barnabas Collins (embodied by the late, great Jonathan Frid) who stalked around his mansion in Collinswood. Subplots involved time travel, monsters, spells and reincarnation, and that was just one season. I was a fan of the show, though I really loved the 1991 revival, starring Ben Cross and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, which was scarier and even weirder.
On TV, it was campy, mesmerizing and spooky. On film, Dark Shadows tries to be a fish out of water comedy, a loving ode to the series, an f/x-driven horror movie, a social commentary on the 1970’s and a gothic, romantic, soap opera spoof that fails at every turn. This is the first big turkey of the summer movie season and it’s overdone in every way but also strangely dull.
Johnny Depp stars as Barnabas, an 18th century vampire suddenly brought back to life in the 1970’s. He attempts to adjust to domestic life in his sprawling Maine mansion, turning to his closest relative (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her kids for family bonding. Yet the witch (Eva Green) who imprisoned him in a coffin is still on the scene and wants to destroy him once and for all.
It adapts a droll sense of humor from the start, with everyone giving a deadpan performance, but the jokes are lame, like Barnabas being perplexed at discovering a road for the first time. Yes, a joke about pavement.
The screenplay tries to fuse seasons of subplots into a two hour film and, by making the story so busy, nothing comes together or lingers in the mind for very long. The brisk structure gives us quick, unconnected scenes, interrupted by shots of crashing waves, apparently to simulate where the commercial breaks would be.
The attractive cast is wasted, with Depp performing like he’s in the most expensive SNL skit ever produced. Despite having underdeveloped roles and not enough screen time, Pfeiffer and Jackie Earl Haley are great. On the other hand, Helena Bonham Carter looks like she’s still playing the Queen of Hearts. Love interest Bella Heathcote is a striking actress the film forgets it has, and Jonny Lee Miller, Chloe Grace Moretz and Green are terrible.
The bigger shame is that director Tim Burton included Frid (in a blink and you’ll miss it cameo), Christopher Lee and Alice Cooper and doesn’t know what to do with them. The cinematography and sets are handsome, with every scene carefully framed to emphasize the actors posing on immaculately decorated sound stages. It has affection for the decade the story is set in but no feel for what the period was like, beyond the hairstyles.
My favorite thing about the movie was hearing great tunes by the Moody Blues, Donovan, Curtis Mayfield and Cooper on the soundtrack. Otherwise, how could the director of Beetlejuice botch this? The Haunted House ride at Disneyland is scarier and a lot more fun. Depp and Burton made the brilliant Ed Wood in 1994. They should have quit while they were ahead.
Rated PG 13/113 Min.