Is there a TV show, cartoon or movie you watched and loved as a child then saw it years later as an adult and wondered what you ever thought was good about it? I was probably too old to be watching the Saturday morning cartoon show “The Superfriends” when it was on the air, but having Superman, Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman and Aquaman all together on TV just made my brain explode. I saw a little of an episode several years later and thought “What was I thinking?” It’s common to have fond memories of things from our childhood that, in retrospect, were of questionable quality. The ABC TV daytime soap opera “Dark Shadows” is probably one of those childhood memories that upon closer inspection as an adult would make quite as favorable an impression. For one thing, the sets would wobble if an actor bumped into them. The actors would forget their lines and would look lost. I remember one incident when a large fly landed on an actor’s face when he was in the middle of a serious speech. Despite these mistakes, I still have fond memories of the Collins family and the hours of fun and fright the provided me over 40 years ago. The announcement of a big screen treatment of this fond memory made me excited as I hoped it would be treated with the seriousness and respect I believed it deserved. Seeing the final product directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp felt like a stake in the heart.
Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) is the target of the jealous designs of house maid Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) in the late 1700’s in the town founded by his family, Collinsport, Maine. While the two fooled around a bit, Barnabas is in love with Josette DuPres (Bella Heathcote). Angelique is a powerful witch who uses black magic to kill Barnabas’ parents and mesmerize Josette to commit suicide by walking off a cliff. Overwhelmed with grief, Barnabas jumps off the same cliff but survives the fall with no injuries as Angelique has placed a curse on him turning him into a vampire. Angelique turns the townspeople of Collinsport against him and Barnabas is sealed in an iron coffin bound by chains and buried alive. Nearly 200 years later, Barnabas is accidently released by road crew, all of whom he drains of blood, and walks to his nearby mansion of Collinwood and hypnotizes groundskeeper Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley) to be his servant. Entering the home, Barnabas meets his relatives: Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), her brother, Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller), Elizabeth’s troubled daughter Carolyn Stoddard (Chloe Grace Moretz), and Roger’s depressed son David (Gully McGrath). There’s also David’s live-in therapist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) and David’s newly arrived governess Victoria Winters (Heathcote) who bears a striking resemblance to Barnabas’ dead love Josette. Barnabas learns the family has fallen on hard times in the last two centuries. Their fishing and canary business has been overrun by a competitor run by Angel Bouchard who is actually the witch Angelique. Barnabas tells Elizabeth his story and proves it by showing her a secret passage that leads to a storeroom full of valuable jewels, coins and antiques. She agrees to hide his true nature and he promises to help return the family to its former glory. When Angelique learns of Barnabas’ return, she plans on either seducing him or engineering his demise.
Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have collaborated on films as diverse as “Ed Wood,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “Edward Scissorhands.” Perhaps the two should take a break from each other as “Dark Shadows” is probably the worst creation the pair has come up with. It meanders and plods along trying to be both a gothic horror film and a comedy yet fails at both.
None of this is the fault of the actors as Depp and the rest of the cast puts on their serious faces and does the best they can with a script that veers from melodrama to slapstick at a moment’s notice. It doesn’t help that most of the characters are unlikable with the exception of Depp’s reluctant vampire and the sad David Collins, still grieving over the death of his mother who drowned at sea. David claims he sees and talks with the ghost of his mother, hence the need for Carter’s Dr. Hoffman who appears to be milking the Collins family for all the booze she can drink. Chloe Grace Moretz is great as the obnoxious Carolyn. Her rebellious nature never wavers even when her character gets an out-of-left-field plot twist that makes her something of a hero despite herself. While Victoria Winters is supposed to be the reincarnated Josette for whom Barnabas declared his undying love 200 years earlier, the pair share very little screen time and the ups and downs of their relationship are so compressed it doesn’t ring true.
Most of the efforts at comedy (and they are an effort to watch) in the script center on the fish-out-of-water aspect of Barnabas being two centuries out of time and his lack of understanding about technology such as electric lights, automobiles and television. Those jokes wear thin rather quickly. There’s also the acrobatic love scene between he and Angelique that’s featured in the trailer. It really makes very little sense since Barnabas frequently expresses his hatred for Angelique for killing those he loved most and cursing him to an eternity of bloodsucking. While Eva Green is an attractive woman, I don’t believe that would be enough to overcome all the deaths and two centuries of being buried alive. Depp, sounding like a somewhat sobered up Capt. Jack Sparrow, does a great deal of mugging in these and other scenes (like when Dr. Hoffman expresses her “love” for Barnabas). Depp is a great actor and his talents are wasted on this film that is only slightly better than the Saturday night film on SyFy.
“Dark Shadows” is rated PG-13 for language, comic horror violence, sexual content, smoking and some drug use. We see a few characters jump for a high cliff and hit the rocks below. Barnabas bites several necks leaving dribbles of blood running down his chin and splattered on his clothes. There’s a rather comedic fight between Angelique, Barnabas and Elizabeth that isn’t at all gory. There’s implied oral sex and the previously mentioned acrobatic love scene. Neither of these involves nudity. A couple of characters are seen smoking cigarettes. A VW bus full of hippies is shown smoking a joint. Foul language is scattered and mild.
As a child, I watched the ABC soap opera “Dark Shadows” and remember it having quite the impact on me. The TV version of Angelique had some real evil and menace about her; so much so, I recall having nightmares involving her character and the various bad magic she was performing. When I heard this version of my childhood was becoming a film, I hoped it would be treated seriously, deliver some actual scares and possibly become a franchise of multiple movies that followed the creepy adventures of the Collins family. Then I saw the trailer and thought “Uh-oh.” My fears were confirmed as Tim Burton has tried to translate his signature mixture of horror and humor to material that still has a strong cult following. I wish I could report Barnabas Collins was as healthy as a vampire could be. Unfortunately, he and the rest of the Collins clan is DOA.
“Dark Shadows” gets two anemic guitars out of five.
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