The iconic DARK SHADOWS. Tim Burton. Johnny Depp. A lavishly budgeted production enabling old fans to rekindle the magic of the TV classic they grew up with. A chance to attract new fans unfamiliar with the original. Cameo appearances by beloved original cast members. Pre-release advertising saturation. How could it possibly miss?
One of the producers admitted in Entertainment Weekly that he had never heard of the original “Dark Shadows” (the 1966-71 ABC-TV gothic/supernatural soap phenomenon that so swept the country that its star vampire was summoned to a Halloween party at the Nixon White House), so he simply “studied up” by watching DVDs. As if. The extent of the similarly clueless EW writer’s grasp of the original was that it “was notorious for its cheapo production values and campy melodramas.”
Such superficiality overlooks the 1225-episode original as an absorbing, magical fantasy. More than just a television show, “Dark Shadows” was a total experience. Its characters – whether conventional or other-worldly, good or evil – had compelling, often sympathetic, human appeal. You wanted to step into their world. You cared for most of them, even the evil ones. That’s why, like thousands of kids across America, I used to run home after school to watch it. That’s why I got hooked again when the Sci-Fi Channel resurrected it in the ‘90s.
Not having seen the film yet, and after years of discouraging rumors, I wanted to give Burton a chance. I wanted to love the new film, or at least like it. After seeing the campy, slapstick trailer, I joked that the film could be renamed, “Edward Scissorhands Guest Stars on The Munsters.” I was resigned to expect a comedy, which at least could be entertaining in its own right. Maybe playing “Dark Shadows” for laughs would capture a new audience, and we older fans could laugh along with them (just as we howled at the numerous instances of unintentional hilarity in the original).
“Dark Shadows” 2012 is not a comedy. Nor is it a well-developed drama. It’s not compelling. It’s not nuanced. It’s not funny. It’s not fun. It’s not even spooky. It is, in a word, nothing. Seen in context, the comedy gags in the trailer (like Barnabas discovering a TV picture and ordering a screen-sized Karen Carpenter to “Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!”) are beyond lame. None of the characters is likable, not even Elizabeth Stoddard and Dr. Julia Hoffman, whose portrayals in the original series by Joan Bennett and Grayson Hall captivated me. Here, Julia is a reduced to a throwaway, as if Burton needed to give Helena Bonham Carter something to do.
One supporting character does make an impression, for I wanted to rescue Gulliver McGrath, the boy who endearingly portrays the troubled David Collins, from this troubled production. At times, Johnny Depp ably channels Jonathan Frid’s Barnabas Collins – the quintessential lost soul, tortured by immortality — although with his Halloween pallor, hat, cape, and shades, he distractingly resembles Michael Jackson on his way to the courthouse.
Some parts seem conceived and written on the way to the studio. For example, early in the film, the 1795 storyline is condensed into a five-minute narrative with clips of key moments (Think: “Last week, on (insert TV drama title)”), as if this would give new viewers all the context and nuance they need to appreciate the Collins family curse upon which the rest of the film is based. Then, toward the end, Carolyn Stoddard (here, not a glamorous ingénue but a bratty 14-year-old) morphs inexplicably into a werewolf. It’s as if, late in the production schedule, Producer A suddenly frets: “Hey, shouldn’t we have a werewolf?” – to which Producer B responds, “Hmmmm . . . oh yeah – we’ll make, um, Carolyn one.”
We see familiar developments, like Victoria Winters being enamored with things of the past. But, in no time and with little explanation, she and Barnabas develop a mutual attraction so strong that she instantly accepts his vampirism and is willing to leap from Widows’ Hill and become a vampire herself to spend eternity with him. Liz blackmails Roger Collins into abruptly departing Collinsport and abandoning his young son. And it is revealed that Vicki Winters and Maggie Evans – the two leading ingénues in the original – are now one-in-the-same person. Huh? Why? How?
I really didn’t care. In condensing storylines to their skeletons and in reducing characters to caricatures, this two-hour film – which felt more like three — wallows in shallowness and boredom.
There are more than a few heavy-handed attempts to make sure we know the film is set in 1972, not the least of which is the onslaught of early ‘70s and ‘60s pop hits in the soundtrack. The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” sets the tone for Victoria Winters’ fateful train ride during the opening credits. This approach destroys the charm of the original, which subtly exuded its other-worldliness through the very absence of pop culture references of the day. We never saw a TV set turned on in the original, and the wildest jukebox tune was “Back at the Blue Whale.” So when scenes are infected with the music of Barry White, The Carpenters, T. Rex, Iggy Pop, and Donovan, the film loses yet another layer of magical fantasy and becomes exasperatingly ordinary.
And despite the unceasing references to 1972, why does Angelique’s wardrobe and hairstyle appear to be right out of any current CW sitcom? My friend John quipped that “they could have at least given her Phyllis hair” (referring to the Cloris Leachman character’s up-do with ringlets on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”).
There are cameos by original stars Kathryn Leigh Scott, Lara Parker, David Selby, and Jonathan Frid as anonymous guests at a mega-bash being thrown by Barnabas in the newly restored Collinwood. It is lovely to see them (though bittersweet that it would be the final film appearance for Frid, who died last month at 87). It is also jarring to encounter the party’s live entertainment: ‘70s rocker Alice Cooper (Barnabas unwittingly thought he was hiring a charming female singer with a quaint name – oh, please).
I’ll admit that the flashback depiction of 18th century Collinsport as a fishing town by the sea is pretty cool, albeit a retread of Burton’s “Sweeney Todd.” Burton here, however, is not an artist, but a mere craftsman, pulling out the ol’ helicopter for his signature sweeping aerial shots. He should have known that well-crafted special effects will not save a film that is a pointless and passionless, insulting to old fans and not entertaining to new audiences. Nor is it a clever, funny parody, which it could well have been in the hands of talented comedy writers who actually understood and appreciated the original. What it needs now is to be put out of its misery and into a chained coffin for the next 200 years.
The irony is that the original “Dark Shadows,” despite its so-called “cheapo production values and campy melodramas,” achieved something far more compelling, dramatic, funny, fun, entertaining, spooky, nuanced, memorable, and enduring than this buzillion-dollar dreck. One Star…
Editors Note: DARK SHADOWS Releases Today on DVD and BluRay… If you dare… !!!!