First of all, dark shadows? What other kinds are there? Second of all, if every middle-aged person who waxes nostalgic about the soap opera had actually been a frequent viewer, the show would have lasted longer than it did — 1,225 episodes, from June 22, 1966, to April 2, 1971, or a mere eyeblink in the multi-decade spans of some daytime dramas. Yet the series earned its immortality by adding vampires and ghosts to the usual TV-soap touchstones of infidelity, amnesia, unsuspected parentage, evil twins and ham acting. Airing on ABC at 4 p.m., just before American Bandstand, the show became after-school appointment viewing for hip youngsters of the Vietnam years.
Apparently those addicted kids included Johnny Depp, Tim Burton and Michelle Pfeiffer. Depp bought the rights to the show, produced the new movie version and stars as the courtly vampire Barnabas Collins. Burton, in his eighth collaboration with Depp, signed on as director; and Pfeiffer, who was the majestic-pathetic Catwoman in Burton’s 1992 Batman Returns, plays Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, doyenne of the cursed Collinwood estate.
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The director’s affection is evident, and his homage sometimes acute: as in afternoon soaps, many shots are medium closeups of the actors staring pensively off-camera (presumably at the Teleprompter). And besides stocking his cast with a quintet of siren-actresses, Burton also graciously invited four of the original stars — Jonathan Frid, Lara Parker, Kathryn Leigh Scott and David Selby — to appear briefly in his film. But the new Dark Shadows is less a channeling of the show than an exercise in facetious Gothic reverie.
Not that adaptors of the old series need feel reverence for it — only reverence for their remembered, pre-adolescence fandom. Sampled today, in MPI Home Video’s Dark Shadows: The Complete Original Series, whose 131 discs contain 470 hours of episodes and extras encased in a hexagonal-shaped coffin box (available in July for a mere $419.99 from Amazon.com), the show is creakier than it is creepy. Producer Dan Curtis and his crew shot the series live-on-tape on a miniscule budget; the bloopers (blown lines, stagehands scurrying past the camera) have filled a blooper reel you can find on Netflix.
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But the series’ pinchpenny atmosphere was part of its appeal. The show seemed as decrepit as Collinwood, and the actors as chained to their roles as the characters were condemned to battle their internal, infernal spirits. Eight months into its run, Curtis introduced the vampire Barnabas (Frid) as a distant relative — distant being the 18th century, when a vengeful witch turned him into a vampire and consigned him to 200 sleepless years buried alive. Thanks to the mood shift from melodrama to Gothic horror, and especially to Frid’s haunted grandeur, Dark Shadows exuded a spooky, sub-camp aroma for the next couple of years. (The show spawned two movie spinoffs in the early ’70s and a 1991 prime-time remake starring Ben Cross as Barnabas, Jean Simmons as Elizabeth, 10-year-old Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Elizabeth’s grandson David and, as David’s live-in psychiatrist, veteran horror-film stunner Barbara Steele.)
The new movie follows the original show’s plot-bible, with prefatory scenes set in the 18th century, when young Barnabas journeys from Liverpool to the family’s new home in a Maine fishing village soon to be renamed Collinsport. The boy has won the ardor of the low-born brunette Angelique but, as he comes to young manhood, he falls in love with the aristocratic blonde Josette DuPres (Bella Heathcote). Using some satanic powers she has mysteriously acquired, Angelique (Eva Green) casts a spell that sends Josette to her death from a high cliff; and, for bad measure, she transforms Barnabas into a vampire and locks him alive in a coffin. He is inadvertently freed in 1972 by some workmen digging up the site. In a trice, all 11 are dead, drained. As Barnabas confesses, “You cannot imagine how thirsty I am.”
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He finds his beloved Collinwood in a state of disrepair that is dank, fetid and truly fabulous-looking — kudos to Rick Heinrichs’ production design and Bruno Delbonne’s cinematography. While warily welcoming Barnabas, Elizabeth tries supervising the truculent Collins brood: her wastrel son Roger (Jonny Lee Miller) and his troubled boy David (Gulliver McGrath) and her teenage granddaughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz). Also on the premises are the psychiatrist Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), a reprobate handyman (Jackie Earle Haley) and a young governess (Heathcote again) who calls herself Victoria Winters but is the exact image of Barnabas’ lost love Josette. The whole clan has been reduced to shabby-genteel poverty because the local fishing concession, on which they once held a monopoly, is now in the clutches of a take-charge blonde named Angie (Green again) — or, as we knew her from the movie’s first five minutes, the witchly Angelique.
A strange abode harboring stranger people: Burton has lived there for ages. His 1988 Beetlejuice unleashed a dead couple on the new inhabitants of their home; and the 1990 Edward Scissorhands imported the blade-fingered man-doll (Depp) into a suburban tract house. The Dark Shadows family bitches and moans at meals no less than the Beetlejuice interlopers did — though at breakfast, in an egregious instance of product placement, the Collinses are visually upstaged by a box of Wheaties. In Burton’s two early films, and in Ed Wood and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, he imparted a collective emotional urgency, however crackpot, to his characters’ missions. Here, less is at stake: the Collinses’ pain isn’t made palpable, and the fun the movie means to have isn’t all that funny.
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Two screenwriters are credited: John August, who worked on Burton’s Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Corpse Bride, and his replacement, Seth Grahame-Smith, author of the mashup novels Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (the movie version of which will open next month). Perhaps it was Grahame-Smith’s idea to devote so much screen time to Barnabas’ slow indoctrination to kooky artifacts of the 1970s, America’s all-time tackiest decade. Get it? They’re weirdly new to him but hilariously old-fashioned to us! That trope cues a few laughs — as when Barnabas first gazes on a TV set that is showing Karen Carpenter singing “Top of the World,” and exclaims, “What sorcery is this? Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!” — but quickly exhausts itself. Finally the movie must turn its attention to telling an actual story: of Barnabas’ rekindling of his love for Victoria-Josette and his centuries-long battle with Angie-Angelique.
Though Barnabas speaks sepulchrally of “the all-consuming void, the dark shadows of the soul,” Depp seems to be viewing his character from the outside, impressed and, even more, amused. In its joshing tone, the actor’s portrayal of Barnabas is similar to his take on another antique fop, Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. The pain that Depp managed to invest in Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and Sweeney Todd is absent here; the performance is expert but empty.
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So why see Dark Shadows, on a weekend when The Avengers beckons you for a second look? Five reasons, and they’re all females. Each of the actresses in the cast looks great and star-acts up a perfect storm. Pfeiffer, still a cool dream of womanhood at 53, presides over Collinwood with an imperious weariness. Moretz, now 15, will never again be the ravishing and ravaging vampire girl of Let Me In, and she isn’t given much more to do here than sulk noisily, but we’re always glad to see her. Bonham Carter, in her fifth film with her at-home partner Burton, nails the neurotic edginess of a shrink who’s sexually beguiled by a very sick patient (Barnabas). Heathcote, an Aussie teen, has a pristine poise to complement her pre-Raphaelite beauty.
Best is Green, who was Daniel Craig’s Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, and whom I promise I will some day stop calling the most gorgeous woman in pictures. Of all the temptresses in Dark Shadows, Green most acutely understands how to play for both humor and horror. In dark hair or light, as an 18th-century witch-goddess or a 20th-century entrepreneuse, she seizes the screen and seduces the moviegoer, even as Angie entices Barnabas into a one-time sex romp that lifts them up the walls of her office and cracks a lot of crockery. Does this principled vampire resist the demon’s attempts to make him endure her erotic torments through all eternity? Then, the mesmerized viewer says, “Take me, please!”
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All right, so Burton has made less a revival of the old show than a hit-or-miss parody pageant. This could be the pricey video record of a masquerade weekend that a group of bored glamorati spent in a rented mansion after someone had brightly proposed, “Let’s play Dark Shadows!” But attention must be paid to movie allure, in a star like Depp and his current harem. Angelique may be the only satanist among the women here, but they’re all bewitching.