Saturday, May 26, 2012

Burton & Depp’s “Shadows” of the Night

The 1966-71 horror/soap opera Dark Shadows has a legion of loyal fans who remember running home from school to watch the series featuring vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) interacting with werewolves, ghosts and witches. It was a little different from your typical daytime drama. He became something of a teen idol among female fans, along with Quentin Collins, played by David Selby. Many DS devotees attend conventions, write fan fiction, and purchase books, DVDs & memorabilia related to the series. The show also spawned two films: 1970’s House of Dark Shadows, and 1971’s Night of Dark Shadows. A short-lived primetime revival aired on NBC in 1991, and a pilot for another version was produced in 2004 by The WB network, but never aired.

Director Tim Burton & actor Johnny Depp are among those who loved the series when they were younger, and now they’ve teamed up to produce a big budget movie version of the show. Depp stars as Barnabas, who’s the son of a wealthy family that owns a successful fishing business in 18th century Maine. He has a fling with a servant named Angelique, but later rejects her. This turns out to be a mistake, as Angelique is a witch. She curses him & his family. His parents are killed; his true love Josette commits suicide, and Barnabas is turned into a vampire, and locked inside a coffin & buried for 200 years. In 1972, some construction workers end up releasing him, and he’s thrust into a strange new world of hippies, television and….The Carpenters.

Barnabas seeks out his descendants, and helps them revive the failing family business. Of course, he has to deal with his vampiric side, and asks for aid from the family’s hard drinking psychiatrist, Dr. Julia Hoffman. He also must battle a familiar and devilish enemy: Angelique, who is now the head of a rival company. She wants to have Barnabas for herself…or kill him & destroy the Collins legacy. Their love/hate relationship, played out in some sexy scenes, is one of the highlights of the film. There are real sparks between them, and Depp and Eva Green (as Angelique) have great chemistry.

Our vampire hero isn’t the only weird member of the Collins family: some of the others seem to have a peculiar side as well, including Jonny Lee Miller as Roger Collins, the materialistic brother of tough matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her daughter Carolyn, a sulky teen who has some funny interactions with Barnabas. And then there’s Victoria Winters, the family governess, who bears a striking resemblance to Barnabas’ lost love Josette. In a way, Barnabas' family is as eccentric as he is, and he's right at home in their world, even if he doesn't quite understand it.

Burton & Depp mine a lot of comedy from Barnabas’ fish out of water reactions to modern society. There’s some witty dialogue and quirky humor, typical of a Burton movie. The film looks great, with excellent production design & costumes, and there’s good use of period music & a flavorful score by Danny Elfman as well. But some of the scenes (especially the showdown between Barnabas & Angelique at the conclusion) recall other supernatural comedies like Burton’s own Beetlejuice (1988) or George Miller’s The Witches of Eastwick (1987). There’s a sense of déjà vu that settles over the film, and it’s not quite as strong as some of the earlier Burton/Depp collaborations. The script's tone wavers a bit, trying to find a balance between being funny and truly scary. Also, a third act revelation about one of the characters seems kind of tacked on, and too quickly & easily explained away.

But the actors are wonderful; Depp turns in a funny, offbeat (and slightly menacing) performance as Barnabas; Green is fantastic as Angelique, chewing the scenery with wild abandon. The rest of the cast, including Pfeiffer, Jackie Earle Haley, Helena Bonham Carter, and Chloe Grace-Moretz, have a great deal of fun with their roles. There’s a very brief cameo in the party scene by four stars of the original series: Selby, Lara Parker, Kathryn Leigh Scott, and Frid, who passed away recently. And rocker Alice Cooper appears as himself.

There was concern among DS fans when the first trailer for this film was released; it was clear that Burton wasn’t going to match the serious tone of the TV series. Many felt this version wouldn't honor the show. Despite its flaws, the script by Seth Grahame-Smith (who also wrote the book & forthcoming film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) has some nice nods to the series, and spoofs the original material in a gentle, endearing way. While this may not be their best film together, Dark Shadows (2012) is worth a look for DS fans, and for those who enjoy the work of Burton & Depp. And if you remember racing home to watch the original (or seeing the reruns, or the original films on late night TV), you may find yourself smiling a bit. Remember..."My name is Victoria Winters...."

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