Even among its most ardent fans, the supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows isn't celebrated for expensive and elaborate sets or high level of acting. The show was filmed between 1967-71 on the cheap, and many of its actors appeared to be constructed from the same cardboard as the set. (There's a reason most of the cast never migrated to film roles.)
Ironically, it's set design and acting that Dark Shadows' big-screen offspring does best.
Tim Burton's Gothic and gloomy vision of the cultish soap opera is gorgeous, the sets are massive and impressive, the period costumes detailed and authentic, and the make-up effects first rate -- all hallmarks of a Burton production.
The quirky-fun Johnny Depp leads a first-rate cast that includes Michelle Pfeiffer (making a welcomed return to the big screen and looking stunning, as always), Helena Bonham Carter, Chloë Grace Moretz, and Eva Green.
Depp, a childhood fan of the soap opera, who dreamed of playing its lead vampire Barnabas Collins, finally gets his wish. Barnabas was once a respected and wealthy resident of the town of Collinsport, Maine, and was transformed into a vampire by family servant and jealous witch Angelique Bouchard (Green, whose deliriously over-the-top villain proves the perfect foil for Depp's wonderfully hammy Barnabas). Angelique's unrequited love for Barnabas fuels her vengeance: she causes his true love to leap to her death, and after turning Barnabas into a vampire, has him locked in a casket and buried alive for eternity.
Barnabas is inadvertently freed from his imprisonment 200 years later -- in the year 1972 -- by a construction crew, and after feasting on the unfortunate men, returns to his beloved family mansion, where he discovers the Collins clan continues to suffer from Angelique's curse.
Barnabas promises he will reverse their ill fortune and restore their good name. But Angelique -- looking not a day older than when she last saw Barnabas -- has other plans. The evil witch still pines for Barnabas, but his attention is focused on the family's young nanny Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote). Furious at being spurned again, Angelique vows revenge.
Screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith lays out a promising premise, populated with a collection of Burton-esque (read: eccentric outcasts) characters -- most based on their original TV versions.
Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Pfeiffer) is the matriarch of the dysfunctional family. Her brother Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller) is a self-absorbed father with zero patience or affection for his oddball son David (Gulliver McGrath), who communicates with the spirit of his dead mother. Dr. Julia Hoffman (Carter), the orange-haired psychiatrist hired to aid David, is fond of self-medication and has taken up permanent residence in the 200-room mansion. Elizabeth's daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a typically self-involved teenager, though in '70s hippy garb. And family servant Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley) is an overworked alcoholic.
It's a motley crew ripe with comedic potential. But the character gags are mostly superficial, and the film never develops into anything more than a collection of period-piece jokes about Lava Lamps and band names, with an occasional horror moment to remind us that Barnabas is, after all, a vampire, and vampires need blood to survive.
The unintentionally campy Dark Shadows is worthy of a theatrical spoof. Longtime Burton film composer Danny Elfman went so far as to include snippets of dramatic soap opera music in his Dark Shadows' score in a sly homage to Robert Cobert's original score as well as a clever send-up. But Burton and Grahame-Smith never fully commit to the spoof concept, and handcuff their willing and drolly competent cast to an often-tedious melodrama.
The playing-it-straight approach worked for TV and its years-long story line. But in a two-hour movie about a vampire restoring family honor, humor is the heartbeat of the film. And when absent, the film is as full of life as Barnabas himself.
Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith, based on the television series by Dan Curtis. A Warner Bros. release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated PG-13 for vulgar language, bloody violence, sexual situations, adult themes. Running time: 113 minutes.
Critic's rating: ** 1/2
Barnabas ..........Johnny Depp
Elizabeth ........... Michelle Pfeiffer
Angelique .......... Eva Green
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.