This is a time of Hollywood reboots, reimaginings and regurgitations in which the prevalent attitude seems to be if it worked once, it can work again. There’s also the other dynamic that has fallen into place in which it’s been deemed necessary to drastically alter a concept from its original incarnation and present it to the modern audience in a very different way.
For instance, 21 Jump Street went from being a cop drama to a full-blown comedy; the ‘60s sitcom The Munsters is being turned into a horror drama on NBC; The CW’s reboot of the Linda Hamilton/Ron Perlman Beauty and the Beast isn’t going to actually have a beast in it, but, instead, a U.S. soldier on whom an experiment has gone terribly wrong; and now there is the eighth Tim Burton/Johnny Depp collaboration, Dark Shadows.
Normally in a review it would be appropriate to set up a background of the premise, but on this particular site that doesn’t seem necessary.
Both Burton and Depp have professed their childhood love for the original Dark Shadows, offering up the classic line, “I used to run home from school every day to watch it,” repeating the mantra of so many veteran fans. They’ve also said that this movie has been inspired by their memories and their overall love for the show…. Now I have been a DS fan since 1968, having caught the show by accident back then and never quite recovering from the experience. But if anyone was to come to me and try to get me to share my memories or impressions of the show, it would never be anywhere close to what is being presented in theatres beginning on May 11th.
Some of the essential ingredients are certainly there – Barnabas’ love for Josette Du Pres and her reincarnation in the present, the curse of vampirism placed upon him by the scorned witch Angelique, the odd Collins family, Collinwood (which looks stunning, thanks to production designer Rick Heinrichs and his collaboration with Burton), Dr. Julia Hoffman, David Collins and his late mother (who isn’t a Phoenix as she was on the old show, but is definitely supernatural in nature), etc. – but it’s all presented in such a bizarre way. Not bizarre as in typically Burtonesque, just…. strange. As promised by the filmmakers, things start off seriously enough in the past, but once Barnabas is freed from his coffin, the “humor” of him adjusting to the world of 1972 kicks into play. The idea of playing that humor is fine – one element never really explored in any depth in the past was Barnabas’ fish out of water situation, but, unfortunately, many of his observations here simply aren’t that funny. And then any time the film does seem to connect with anything in a remotely serious manner, something truly inane happens to take the audience out of that moment. Which is so incredibly frustrating, because when you look at the central plot – the battle between Barnabas and Angelique and the preservation of the Collins family – there was definitely a strong enough concept there, but it’s all marred by the determination to camp up virtually every situation.
While Johnny Depp does an interesting job portraying Barnabas, frequently suggesting some of the essence brought to the role by the late Jonathan Frid (who is on screen with his fellow co-stars from the original series for what amounts to about two seconds), too often Burton has the audience laughing at the character rather than with him. This Barnabas, trying to find a comfortable place to sleep, does so in a closet, a cardboard box, upside down against a curtain, etc. And when he inadvertently steps into a shaft of sunlight, he’s the last one to notice that he’s on fire, which is apparently okay since someone is conveniently nearby with a bucket of water to douse him. In his battle with Angelique, at one point she projectile vomits what looks like a stream of pea soup circa The Exorcist, which he manages to elude. But then she does it again and he ends up completely covered in the substance, looking like someone who’s been slimed at the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards.
And wait until you get to the ending. Things play out in such a way – with so many random elements thrown into the fray – that you’re left with the feeling that rather than attempting to preserve any sort of memory of Dark Shadows or paving the way for future generations to enjoy the concept, there was a hidden agenda in place to ensure the polar opposite.
The cast of this movie is fine – all playing things a little eccentrically, but effectively. And, as noted earlier, the core concept works, but for anyone who thinks the problem with Dark Shadows stems from the challenge of taking five years worth of a soap opera and distilling it to a feature film, they couldn’t be more wrong. According to screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith, the earliest stages of this film had a “much darker” screenplay by John August, but then the decision was made to lighten it up and August’s script was discarded. As a result, the problem with this film stems from the overall vision of Burton, Grahame-Smith and Johnny Depp, which was clouded at best, callous and cynical at worst.
As the credits begin to roll, you’re left asking yourself one question: what the hell were they thinking? At film’s end, Michelle Pfeiffer as Elizabeth Collins-Stoddard professes that the Collins family will endure… Uh, no they won’t. At least not this particular branch.