“Dark Shadows” occupied a unique place on the narrow spectrum of afternoon television programming in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A gothic daytime soap opera with paranormal elements, it gave the world the first vampire heartthrob, Barnabas Collins, played by Jonathan Frid (who died only a few weeks ago).
For a generation of housewives, Barnabas was a figure of immortal intrigue and romance long before the similarly named (and less age-appropriate) Edward Cullen or Buffy’s romances with Angel and Spike. For a generation of youngsters, too, “Dark Shadows” was a daily after-school dose of shivery thrills.
Unsurprisingly, both Tim Burton and Johnny Depp were part of this “Dark Shadows” generation. Depp says as a boy he was so obsessed with Barnabas that he wanted to be him. (One of my closest friends had the same preoccupation as a boy.)
How melancholy, then, that the Burton–Depp collaboration Dark Shadows feels less like a fond and knowing tribute than a work of indifferent, uninspired hackery. Though the gothic production design is quintessential Burton, and the blend of horror and comedy promises to harken back to Beetlejuice, the overall effect for me is closer to Burton’s Planet of the Apes than anything else, in that neither film seems to know what it wants to be when it grows up. Burton tries a little of this and a little of that, but the work never seems to coalesce.
At least Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland had a go-for-broke sense of commitment. Charlie in particular had elements that made me grin with giddy delight—which only made the film’s wrongheaded excesses all the more frustrating. As for Alice, while I strongly disliked it, I don’t deny that it cast a potent spell.
Where is the spell in Dark Shadows? Above all, where is Barnabas Collins, with his aura of mystery and charm, his dangerous reserve and knowing smile? On the small screen, Barnabas strode into “Dark Shadows” in the second season like a force of nature. Released from a 200-year imprisonment locked in a coffin in the family mausoleum, he returned to his ancestral home, the castle-like Collinwood mansion in Collinsport, Maine, sweeping the Collins women off their feet with his courtly courtesies. “Surely not Vicky,” he smiles when introduced to young Victoria Winters, who bears an uncanny resemblance to his 18th-century love, Josette. “A name like Victoria is so beautiful that I could not bear to part with a single syllable of it.”
I would love to see Depp play this character—a character he’s wanted to play since childhood. He’d be great. Naturally, he’s playing someone completely different.
Granted, they give him that great line with Victoria (Bella Heathcote, who also plays Josette). But it’s a rare moment of grace in a character who more often comes off, like Depp’s Willy Wonka, as the ultimate fish out of water—a pasty-faced weirdo barely able to cope with the formidable task of interacting with human beings.
Where the small-screen Barnabas glibly passed himself off as a descendant of the Barnabas Collins whose portrait hung in the main hall at Collinwood, Depp’s Barnabas has neither the interest in nor the capacity for such subterfuge, leaving it to family matriarch Elizabeth Collins (Michelle Pfeiffer) to cover for him. Far from charming or impressing anyone, his stiff manner, stuffy speech patterns and period ignorance make him an awkward, embarrassing presence, given to inappropriate remarks and behavior.
“Fifteen, and no husband?” he barks at Elizabeth’s sullen daughter Carolyn (Chloë Moretz). “You must put those birthing hips to good use!” Naturally, he’s bewildered by the mysteries of the 1970s, with its automobiles and McDonalds and frozen waffles. “Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!” he cries out at the sight of a Carpenters TV special before ripping the back off the giant console television set.
As that gag illustrates, the period trappings are impeccable, and probably the best thing about Dark Shadows. There are pot-smoking hippies in bell bottoms and microbuses, and the soundtrack is replete with the Moody Blues and Donovan. A movie theater marquee announces Superfly. Everything from lava lamps to Troll dolls to “Operation!” is a wonder to Barnabas.
If you are in love with the 1970s and Johnny Depp, perhaps you will enjoy this. Andrew O’Hehir says he knew he would love the film when he spotted a banana-seat Schwinn bicycle leaning against the front porch of Collinwood in an early scene. All right. But then comes a “happening” featuring Alice Cooper as himself (!), with a disco ball and cage dancers. At Collinwood. Is this really anyone’s idea of a good time?
Besides Pfeiffer, Heathcote and Moretz, the overstuffed cast includes Eva Green as Barnabas’s nemesis Angelique, Helena Bonham Carter as boozing shrink Dr. Julia Hoffman, Jackie Earle Haley as Loomis the caretaker and Jonny Lee Miller as Elizabeth’s slacker brother Roger. No one has much to do, except for Green, who vamps it up not as a vampire but as a witch whose love/hate relationship with Barnabas drives the story, from Josette’s suicide and Barnabas’s vampirism to the Collins family’s diminished circumstances and tragic history.
It’s worth noting that where the TV series had Barnabas inadvertently released from his casket by a grave robber searching for family jewels, in the movie his coffin is accidentally unearthed by a construction crew. The sense of dread linked to trespass, to desecration and sacrilege, is gone. The man who was Barnabas’s first victim in the TV series was a reprobate soul who deserved what he got. The construction crew victims were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
With graphic bloodletting and sexual content, Dark Shadows is decidedly adult fare. Regrettably, many parents heading to theaters to see the latest Johnny Depp film will have children in tow far too young for the material. Few if any of those youngsters, I imagine, will come away sharing Depp's childhood wish to be Barnabas Collins.