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The latest ’60s/’70s TV show to get all dressed up as a fancy, big-budget feature film, Dark Shadows sinks its teeth half-way into its potentially meaty material but hesitates to go all the way. With an oddball premise that’s right up his alley, director Tim Burton has stylish fun with a morally-and-time-warped family visited by an undead 18th century relative, as does Johnny Depp in the role of the antique British-accented vampire. But the humor slithers between the clever and the sophomoric and the film too often seems willing to settle for mild humor at the expense of hippie-era mores instead of pursuing the palpable temptation to become genuinely twisted. Still, with its central bloodsucker vs. witch rivalry and Depp in one of his patented bizarre roles, this has all the ear and tooth marks of an early summer winner for Warner Bros.
Reportedly, as a child Depp’s obsession with the elegant, well-spoken, romantically haunted central character, Barnabas Collins, was deep to the point of being all-consuming. Unsurprisingly, the teenaged Burton was also a devotee of Dan Curtis‘s daily afternoon show, which ran on ABC from 1966-71 and amassed 1,225 individual episodes. This eighth collaboration between the actor and director affords Depp the opportunity to once again don unusual makeup and hair styles to become the white-faced, plaster-maned vampire who rejoins the living in 1972 after having been entombed for nearly 200 years.
After a dockside Liverpool opening that makes it look like Burton is still making Sweeney Todd, a five-minute prologue tells the tale of the Collins family’s voyage to America, their establishment of a fishing empire in Maine and heir Barnabas’ tragic love for the exquisite Josette (Bella Heathcote). The latter is made to fling herself off a cliff by the spurned witch Angelique (Eva Green), who then avenges herself against Barnabas by transforming him into a vampire and burying him six feet under.
The workmen who discover and dig up Barnabas’ coffin in 1972 are thanked for the efforts by becoming his first victims — he is, he readily admits, very thirsty—and he presently makes his way to his old home, the grand Collinwood Manor, now in a state of sorrowful disrepair, as are its occupants. Matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) presides over a depressive, eccentric household that includes her insolent naughty daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), no-good brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), the latter’s mother-bereft 10-year-old son David (Gully McGrath), David’s tippling shrink Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), lowdown caretaker Willie (Jackie Earle Haley) and a newly arrived nanny, Victoria, who looks just like Josette of yore.
And, lo and behold, the big boss in town, whose own fishing operation has wiped the Collins’ company out, is one Angie, none other than the remarkably preserved Angelique, just waiting for another chance to make old Barnabas her own.
Given that the screenwriter here is Seth Grahame-Smith, the author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, much is made of bizarre conjunctures and unexpected associations; Barnabas must get used to everything from motorized vehicles, hippies, Carolyn’s rudeness and electricity to, horror of horrors, troll dolls and lava lamps. When he decides to throw a dress ball, despite protestations that no one does this anymore, he must also come to terms with an Alice who is not a woman but Alice Cooper, engaged to entertain the motley townsfolk.
Depp drolly underplays the refined vampire’s reactions to all this and more, although the soundtrack’s frequent japes in this direction—playing “Superfly,” the Carpenters’ “Top of the World” and a Barry White special — at pointedly ironic moments — ultimately tips the balance toward easy points rather than genuine inventiveness.
Upon meeting the demure Victoria, Barnabas is convinced that he has been presented with a second opportunity for true love. In its pursuit, he embarks upon blood transfusions administered by Dr. Hoffman that he hopes will return him to human status. At the same time, however, he needs all his power to battle Angie, who will happily destroy half the town and put Barnabas back in his box again if he doesn’t deign to join her in undying bliss.
Especially after her frighteningly ferocious turns as Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter series, it would have been easy imagine Burton casting his wife as Angie. In the event, Bonham Carter proves a disarmingly droll choice as Dr. Hoffman, a thick-around-the-middle New York shrink who develops an unhealthy interest in the new visitor. Green’s stunning Angie, her perfect teeth gleaming behind red scar lips, looks like she could eat Barnabas alive at any moment; she’s so much the full-time sorceress, and he’s so much the cultivated man of manners, that it barely seems like a fair fight. But, then, vampires have their ways, and the lethally attractive pair ultimately do get down to an especially athletic bout of extra-human sex before settling matters once and for all.
Given that Burton has traded in such off-kilter, oddly populated, humorously horrible material so many times before, there are few surprises in the way Dark Shadows has been handled tonally or visually. He could scarcely be more at home than at Collinwood Manor and some of the more ordinary characters, including Victoria, Roger and, unfortunately, the needy boy wonderfully played by McGrath, seem to bore him and get short shrift.
However, Depp is right on the money in a studiously controlled, steadfastly humorous performance that takes its rightful place in his personal portrait gallery of one-off misfits. Equipped with pointed fingers, the actor successfully channels the role’s creator, Jonathan Frid, who died just last month at age 87, while adding distinctive riffs and vocal intonations of his own. He’s a continual pleasure to watch.
Pfeiffer and Moretz have their moments, although a late plot twist concerning the latter’s character doesn’t sit well. Shot entirely in England despite the New England setting, the film is decked out with refined production values on a par with all of the director’s work.
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