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After-School Vampires

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Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins, in 2012.  

Oh, but Dark Shadows could suck you in. After Barnabas and Julia traveled back in time with the aid of the I-Ching to save two imperiled children out of The Turn of the Screw, they encountered their most magnificent foe, Count Petofi, a demonic refugee in search of his powerful severed hand and played by the gravel-voiced Thayer David. The silken David Selby and a pair of wide, pomaded sideburns came aboard as the new werewolf, Quentin. Blond Lara Parker was transfixingly beautiful—a simmering ice queen—as Angelique, the jealous witch who made Barnabas a vampire. John Karlen simpered lyrically as Barnabas’s slave/handyman Willie Loomis. Composer Robert Cobert—who later admitted he’d never seen the show—wrote great all-purpose sinister pizzicatos and thunderous crescendos for the episode-ending cliffhangers. Collinsport was a happening place.

The best explanation for the show’s rapid ratings plunge and 1971 cancellation is that everyone burned out. After warlocks, “Leviathans,” a Jekyll/Hyde character, zombies, etc., the writers ran out of monsters. Frid made it known that he was sick of playing a vampire. Two enjoyable but superfluous feature films—the second heavily cut, on orders of the distributor—devalued the brand. But Curtis, like many of us, couldn’t let Dark ­Shadows go. An early-nineties prime-time incarnation with Ben Cross was starting to jell when it was canceled after twelve episodes. A 2004 relaunch never got past the pilot stage. Curtis died. But Collinwood, like Brigadoon, seems destined to reappear at regular intervals.

In their Dark Shadows, Depp and Burton refashion the vampire’s “origin story” into a bloody spoof, a clown show of carnage. The eighteenth-century prologue, narrated by Barnabas, is played straight, although it hurtles by so quickly it feels like coming attractions. Barnabas, heir to Collin­wood, jilts the servant girl (and witch) Angelique (Eva Green), who gets revenge by compelling his fiancée, Josette, to fling herself off a cliff and turning Barnabas into a vampire. Sealed in his coffin, Barnabas is freed by backhoes in 1972—whereupon Burton’s canvas becomes a riot of nutty juxtapositions, the garishly phosphorescent costumes and hairstyles pointedly refusing to blend into the stark Gothic interiors. It’s a gorgeous eyesore.

Rather than going the Twilight-dreamboat route, Depp makes his Barnabas freakier than Frid’s, with clown-white skin, hollow eyes, spindly talons, and those wacky forelocks. He’s part Burton’s Edward Scissorhands and Jack Skellington, part Max Schreck’s Count Orlok from ­Nosferatu—all of them alienated Goths who inadvertently hurt people. But he’s unusually extroverted, explaining the source of his problems (a woman) to Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer). Angelique, it turns out, is still around, having taken over the fishing village and driven the Collins family into near bankruptcy. This Dark Shadows is a business farce. In between slaying people and swooning over Victoria Winters (a dead ringer for Josette, both played by the waifish Australian cutie Bella Heathcote), Barnabas goes mano a mano with his old adversary, who still wants to jump his bones—although it’s my opinion that the luscious, loose-limbed, glittering-eyed Green (the best thing in the movie) is too much woman for Depp.

The other actors do variations on a single joke, Pfeiffer’s Elizabeth a starched great lady who pulls childish faces, Helena Bonham Carter’s Dr. Hoffman a conniving dipsomaniac in a flame-red bob who (spoiler, and I don’t care) goes down on the vampire. Chloë Grace Moretz has a few bright moments as the teenage Carolyn, but everyone else—including Christopher Lee and a handful of original Dark Shadows actors—is trotted in and out to no effect. The screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith is witless and meandering, though the witlessness wouldn’t matter so much if it moved, or the meandering if it were droll.

It’s possible that my affection for the original Dark Shadows kept me from giving myself over to Burton’s most antic film since Mars Attacks! It’s possible. But I’m also getting tired of the Burton-Depp mix of morbid self-pity and gonzo aggression. It was great partnership for a while, but Burton needs a new mascot. The blood here is bright, but tired.

Dark Shadows
Directed by Tim Burton. PG-13.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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