Silver Screen: Dark Shadows *1/2
The daytime soap opera Dark Shadows ran for just five years, from 1966 to 1971, but in that time amassed far more than one-thousand episodes, making it the most prolific horror show of all time. The program launched as a gothic melodrama but quickly evolved into more outright genre fare by adding ghosts, witches, spells, and soon the tragic vampire Barnabas Collins, who became the series's focus.
The show's original airdates are of particular interest to Tim Burton's calculatedly off-kilter remake, which is set in 1972, as though the film was a kind of logical continuation of the cancelled TV soap. The big-screen version, however, is just as concerned with the year 1972 as it is with vampires and cures.
Burton's Dark Shadows opens with a prologue two-hundred years in the past: Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), the heir to the fortune of the wealthiest family in Collinwood, is torn between two lovers, the innocent Josette (Bella Heathcote) and seductive servant Angelique (Eva Green). He chooses the former, which turns out to be a bad call: Seems that Angelique is a witch, and after mesmerizing Josette and sending her plummeting off a cliff to her death, she curses Barnabas to become a vampire, then buries him alive for eternity. It's a handsomely rendered prologue overstuffed with loopy twists and turns, an accurate recreation of having someone hastily explain the wild plot of their favorite soap opera just as the next episode starts.
Flash forward a couple of centuries as a young woman with a mysterious agenda travels by train to Collinwood. She adopts the name Victoria Winters, but she looks conspicuously like the long-dead Josette. Burton asserts the time period by setting the scene to “Nights in White Satin,” which here has a wonderfully ominous feel that perfectly captures the movie's half-serious tone.
Victoria insinuates herself into a position as a governess for the Collins family. She's to tutor young David (Gulliver McGrath), who insists he can still communicate with his dead mother. The rest of the family is only marginally less spooky. Matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) has hired a full-time psychiatrist (Helena Bonham Carter) to help her with depressed David and spiteful sprite Carolyn (Chloë Moretz), whose terrible teen years are particularly savage.
Then some construction workers accidentally dig up Barnabas and turn the movie into Austin Powers. (Austin Vampowers?)
Suddenly the smirking soap sendup turns into a broad culture-clash comedy as a gothic bloodsucker gets yanked into DayGlo disco modernity. He's bedazzled by a McDonald's sign, befuddled by a television, and captivated by the scantily clad ladies of the day. He expresses it all with modern phrases cheekily repackaged into old-timey speak: “The very thought of it summons vomit to the back of my throat,” et cetera.
What's most surprising is that, for a time, Burton is able to reconcile these two dissonant tones, juggling the zany and the macabre with as much grace as Barry Sonnenfeld in the Addams Family movies-- which is to say, kinda. The ghostly goings on at the crumbling manor continue even as Barnabas discovers that the witch Angelique is still alive and has seized financial power from the Collinses, but gradually the film loses its eerie undercurrent among waves of slapstick humor and top-forty tunes from the swingin' seventies. By the time Alice Cooper arrives to play himself at a wild party Barnabas throws to ingratiate himself, the movie has crossed the line from tedious to outright annoying.
Wither Tim Burton? In the 1980s and early 1990s, the writer/director consistently created some of the most unique and daring Hollywood films, turning utterly uncommercial-sounding ideas into pop-culture sensations: an undead couple trapped in bureaucratic purgatory seek to scare yuppies out of their houses (Beetlejuice), a hyper-sensitive monster of science charms a suburb with his hair-cutting skills (Edward Scissorhands), a transvestite with big dreams makes the best worst movie of all time (Ed Wood). But latter-day Burton is all about taking big commercial properties and giving them the veneer of kookiness. His choices seem decidedly risk-averse, and his stagnant style and redundant casting of Depp and Bonham Carter have given his movies a pre-fab aesthetic, as though there's a Burtonizing machine out there that exists only to press dormant properties into a familiar mold. This one is fresh off the assembly line, but it's barely still warm.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.