Dark Shadows (2012) / Comedy-Horror

MPAA rated: PG-13 for violence, sexual content, some drug use, language, and smoking
Running time: 113 min.

Cast: Johnny Depp, Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer, Bella Heathcote, Helena Bonham Carter, Jackie Earle Haley, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jonny Lee Miller, Gulliver McGrath
Small role: Christopher Lee, Alice Cooper, David Selby, Jonathan Frid
Director: Tim Burton
Screenplay: Seth Grahame-Smith (based on the TV series created by Dan Curtis)
Review published December 16, 2012

Dark Shadows 2012Johnny Depp (On Stranger Tides, The Tourist) stars as 18th Century Maine fishing industrialist Barnabas Collins, who unwittingly becomes the object of vengeance when he betrays his servant Angelique Bouchard (Green, The Golden Compass), who turns out to be a powerful witch.  Angelique kills Barnabas' lover, Josette (Heathcote, In Time), and curses him with vampirism before entombing him in a grave for what should have been all eternity. 

However, though a fluke, Barnabas emerges nearly 200 years later to the family estate, Collinwood, only to find that his current progeny lives in near squalor, and the family's giant fishing empire has all but completely evaporated, losing to a fierce business competitor that just so happens to be run by the very same Angelique. 

Meanwhile, the family's new head, Elizabeth (Pfeiffer, Stardust), has hired on the services of a young governess pseudo-named Victoria Winters (Heathcote, again), who happens to be the spitting image of his beloved Josette, to help alleviate some of the burden around the house after more tragedies have befallen them.  Barnabas is sickened by the current state of his family's affairs, and means to set them right, but with Angelique still holding a grudge (and one hell of a flame) he has quite a lot to overcome.

Dark Shadows is loosely based on the gothic cult TV series, a soap opera featuring a vampire, that was originally on the air from 1966 to 1971.  Others have tried and failed to resurrect the series, but none with the kind of clout of director Tim Burton (Alice in Wonderland, Sweeney Todd).  Given the results, perhaps some sleeping vampires should just lie dormant, as Burton succeeds in dressing everyone up just fine, but has no clue where to go once the ball starts rolling in the storyline.

The first misstep is that, while many of the characters are the same name a those that appeared in the original series, their characterizations are completely different, as is the overall tone of the film from the original TV show.  As has been the norm for film versions of television series from the 1970s and 1980s, the comedic aspect is far heightened, to the point where the production becomes a parody of the original work rather than a recreation.  Interjecting with the usual gothic horror digs are gags revolving around the pop culture of the early 1970s, such as Erich Segal's 'Love Story', Hanna Barbera's 'Scooby Doo', The Carpenters, mirrored disco balls, and Alice Cooper (Sgt. Pepper, Wayne's World), who performs a couple of songs in the film as if Burton thinks he looks exactly the same at 64 as he did 40 years ago (not quite!).  That Barnabas thinks Cooper is a woman due to his feminine name is a recurring joke, if you want an example of the film's level of humor.

Nevertheless, the dashes of humor do keep the entertainment value afloat, as Depp's funny mannerisms and fish-out-of-water reactions about the house's many modern trappings make for choice amusement from time to time.  It's amiable stuff, if a bit fluffy, which goes completely off the rails once Barnabas begins to indulge in romantic dalliances, followed by a completely unfunny climax between Barnabas and Angelique for all of the marbles that just gets progressively noisy and ugly to the point of pointlessness.

Burton has covered much of the same ground before, only better, and the subject matter involving a kooky family of monsters living among humans played for comedy has been done to death, especially by 'The Addams Family' and 'The Munsters'.  Most of the comedy from Seth Grahame-Smith's script comes from the jokes regarding Barnabas' difficulty acclimating to like in the early 1970s, particularly the music, the hippie lifestyles, and all of the things electricity has brought (Barnabas is particularly fond of the potentially tasty blood red globules of a lava lamp).  Grahame-Smith is certainly not new to the mix of modern horror with 18th and 19th Century dialogue, as  his claim to fame is as the author of best-selling genre-mashup books like "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' and 'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter' (the latter would itself be made into a movie, produced by none other than Tim Burton).  It's the kind of movie that Burton could probably do in his sleep; he never goes outside his comfort zone to give us something new, interesting, or unexpected from the oft-artistic director.

Another problem is that, while love triangles and quadrangles might make for juicy storylines on daily television shows, there is almost no development for any of the romances in the film, as Barnabas gets it on with pretty much every female character who isn't directly related to him.  We feel none of the tragedies of loves lost, and outside of being pathologically jealous, we can see little other reason why Barnabas doesn't even consider a romance with equally wretched immortal creature, Angelique.

The actors are all fine in their respective roles (Burton continues to cast actors based on big eyes and small noses) but they eventually fall prey to the CGI special effects as the film nears its overblown finale, as all of the mild buildup of humorous situations, quirky characterizations, and interesting art design are trampled over for the sake of sheer spectacle.  This is a recurring pattern for Burton, as many of his films turn unnecessarily dark and incongruous with the somewhat lighter tone of the rest of the film.  In many ways, it reminds me of the black comedies of the early 1990s, starting off as kooky and silly as The Addams Family and ending up as dark and overly violent as Death Becomes Her.

It's hard to say who might be the audience to which Dark Shadows is aiming.  It's certainly not fans of the original TV show, who might be very interested to see such a major production pay homage, only to wonder how what happens on the screen has anything to do with the Dan Curtis creation in either characterization or spirit.  Burton fans will likely feel tepid that it seems like a typical Burton film, albeit only thinly held together story-wise.  A good cast of actors and nicely colored sets do not a good movie make alone. 

As Barnabas quotes from Segal's novel, "Love is never having to say you're sorry."  The makers of Dark Shadows made a film remake that seems to have little love for its original work, leaving more than enough room for Burton and co. to issue the longtime fans an apology.
Qwipster's rating:

©2012 Vince Leo