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Dark Shadows

Tim Burton remakes 1960s soap opera

May. 9, 2012
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A year after it premiered, the gothic soap opera "Dark Shadows" took a strange turn with the arrival of a distant family member at the Collinwood estate. The mysterious Barnabas turned out to be a vampire, a circumspect and courtly initiate of the undead, and the already eccentric series just grew odder and odder as he became the star. "Dark Shadows" gathered a loyal following despite its low-rent direction. Boom microphone visible overhead? No problem, keep shooting! And not only was "Dark Shadows" not forgotten in the decades since its 1971 cancellation, it gained a Trekkie-like fandom complete with conventions, collectibles and extravagant DVD box sets. Johnny Depp loved the show as a child and grew up to see his wish fulfilled: He gets to play Barnabas in director Tim Burton's resuscitation of the old soap.

Set in 1972, the film concerns the return of Barnabas after a hapless crew of contractors unearths his iron coffin at a construction site. "I'm terribly sorry—you cannot imagine how thirsty I am," the vampire says before dispatching them. The date suggests that Burton picks up the story where it stopped decades ago, but while many elements of the series are alive in the film, Burton freely adapts it to his own ironic sensibility. In the original, Barnabas simply journeyed to Collinwood in rural Maine from his exile in England. Here, he's Rip van Winkle, surfacing at the groovy end of the '70s after two centuries in the grave and looking like Nosferatu's handsome brother with pointy ears and long, spidery fingers. Barnabas relates the golden arches of McDonald's to Mephistopheles and oncoming headlights to the eyes of Beelzebub. He's a shadowy stranger in a strange land, but the freewheeling counterculture remains in evidence and Barnabas could be mistaken for a foppish member of some touring British rock band.

Making tracks to Collinwood, a sprawling gothic castle inhabited by his troubled descendants, their dim servant, a dreamy governess and their live-in psychiatrist, Barnabas ensconces himself with little trouble. Michelle Pfeiffer, playing the family matriarch Elizabeth as an irritable grand dame, accepts Barnabas as a partner in her schemes, even as her ineffectual brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller) responds with ill-disguised surliness. Chloe Moretz plays daughter Carolyn as a disaffected teen, blasting The Stooges and T. Rex behind the "Keep Out" sign on her bedroom door. She chalks up Barnabas as stoned. But her half-brother, young Master David (Gulliver McGrath), accepts and even admires the strange man who resembles a certain ancestral painting in the great hall. As always in Burton films, Helena Bonham Carter is the scene-stealer, turning Dr. Julia Hoffman into a frumpy woman sloshing around in a damp, alcoholic fog.

And perhaps the dark cycle that has long enmeshed the Collins family will play out again? The vulture capitalist Angelique (Eva Green) is the very same jilted woman whose spell transformed Barnabas into a vampire two centuries earlier. Could the governess (Bella Heathcote) be the reincarnation of the girl Barnabas loved so long ago, drawn by fate to return to Collinwood?

The screenplay went through at least two sets of hands and may have suffered along the way to the final draft. Early on, a precarious balance of eeriness and comedy is maintained in some scenes and the influence of Burton's beloved '60s Hammer horror flicks is apparent. Most of the tart humor occurs in the film's first half, with its many mordant references to the pop culture of 1972, complete with The Carpenters, the dopey sophistry of naïve hippies and Erich Segal ("Love means you never have to say you are sorry," as Barnabas says in his perfect diction). Alice Cooper appears as himself, and Barnabas, while accepting the music, puts the star down as "the ugliest woman I have ever seen." After a while, silliness and wretched overkill overtake the production, and whatever emotional connection we could have with the characters is washed out on a tide of special effects. Naturally, the seed is planted for a sequel, should the movie succeed at the box office.

By this stretch of his career, Depp can do comic weirdness in his sleep, but he seems to have a good time through many scenes and occasionally shows a flash of the tortured soul within Barnabas, a pathos largely lost amid a screenplay in which the authors ultimately opt against pathos. With his pale skin, enveloping sunglasses, big hat and archaic cloak, Depp's Barnabas ventures into the society beyond Collinwood, looking for all the world like Michael Jackson in his latter days.


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