Dear reader, heed my warning: verily, the undead live. Not rotten-fleshed zombies or nocturnal ghouls, but old TV series from the 1960s and ’70s, resurrected from the moldering vaults where they lay and given new life by devious Hollywood necromancers. In this deal with the Devil, they breathe new life into corpses where the spirit has long since departed, and set their foul creations upon an unsuspecting world.
Allow me to drive a stake through the heart of this latest monstrosity, “Dark Shadows,” Tim Burton’s big-screen adaptation of the “Gothic soap opera” which ran on American TV from 1966-1971. Burton stays firmly within his comfort zone — Johnny Depp in the lead, a bunch of likable misfits as characters, secondhand Hammer Horror set and costume design — and delivers a dull, Goth-lite flick that doesn’t even come close to previous triumphs such as “Beetlejuice,” “Sleepy Hollow” or “Corpse Bride”.
“Dark Shadows” was set in and around the eerie Collinwood Manor in a small New England town, and the show really took off once it introduced family patriarch and vampire Barnabas Collins, originally played by Jonathan Frid. The series was broadcast live and moved at the glacial pace of afternoon soaps, so for the film version Burton has condensed plot lines that developed over literally hundreds of episodes into one talky, two-hour slog that winds up shortchanging everyone but Depp.
Depp reprises the role of Barnabas, released from the grave after 200 years of imprisonment and determined to right the fortunes of his descendants, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, Jonny Lee Miller, Chloe Grace Moretz and Gulliver McGrath. Between the back story of Barnabas and spurned lover/witch Angelique (Eva Green) set in the 1770s, the introduction of all the family members in Collinwood, the story involving governess Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote) who resembles the ghost of Barnabas’ long-dead lover, Angelique’s continuing feud with Barnabas, Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) and her attempts to “cure” Barnabas, and, uh, rival fishing industries, almost the entire script is exposition, and most of it’s crap.
Rarely can I recall seeing a film where I cared less about who did what to whom and why. You’ll sit there and wait for some suspense, some laughs, some thrills, some special effects, something, anything to happen, before realizing that Johnny Depp camping it up in white-face makeup is all you’re going to get.
The film’s essential problem is Depp: Not only is he on autopilot, rehashing mannerisms he created for Captain Jack Sparrow or even Hunter Thompson, his makeup makes him look clownish (again, after playing the androgynous Mad Hatter in “Alice in Wonderland”) and he comes off as the most unmenacing vampire in the history of cinema, Robert Pattinson included. He lacks that crucial sense of menace crossed with seduction that gives vampires their edge. Depp can certainly do dangerous — see “Public Enemies” or “Donnie Brasco” — but he’s been practically castrated for the Burton films for some time now. (Willie Wonka, anyone?)
Instead, the film is played for laughs; theoretically, at least. There are only two strands of humor — 18th-century Barnabas feeling out of place in the 20th century, and naff ’70s fashion — and neither delivers much. A slam-bang, crawling-the-walls supernatural sex scene between Barnabas and witchy Angelique (fully clothed, mind you) set to Barry White on the soundtrack is meant to be slapstick, but was greeted by a deafening silence at the screening this critic attended.
About the only interest that lies in this film is in what one can gleam about the psyche of its creator. Burton has spoken in interviews — yet again — about growing up as an outsider and feeling strange, and how this film is a reflection of those experiences. A closer look, though, at the vengeful harpy that is Angelique suggests that Burton is exorcising his fears about the fury of a woman scorned. It’s well known that Burton’s split with his previous partner, actress Lisa Marie, was a nasty one; she auctioned off a huge amount of his film memorabilia, much to his dismay, while he was in England with new flame Bonham Carter. It’s perhaps no coincidence then that brunette Green has been made into a blonde spitting image of Marie for “Dark Shadows.”
On the one hand, I admire Burton for always pursuing offbeat projects and following his own rules in making them; on the other, he has come to be so obsessed with the look of a film that he’s forgotten the necessity of a good script. “Dark Shadows” is yet another weak effort, and when viewed alongside his wretched remakes of “Alice in Wonderland” and “Planet of the Apes,” what we see is a filmmaker sorely in need of a few original ideas.