Hats off to the folks in Warner Bros.’ promotions. Their trailer for Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows” is terrific ‒ funny, outlandish, a tad scary. It led us to expect a clever cross between “Beetlejuice” and “The Addams Family.” If only …
Hollywood’s premier fantasist, reteamed with Johnny Depp, has come a cropper this time out. His spin on the 1966-’71 soap opera is, as usual, wonderfully stylish ‒ an eye-popping mélange of the Gothic and expressionistic. Punctuated by waves crashing against rocks, it’s part “Wuthering Heights,” part F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu.” The only problem: Once the novelty of Depp as Barnabas Collins in Kabuki makeup and Caesar bangs wears off, we’re left with a tired vampire spoof that’s neither funny nor particularly imaginative.
If you’re a film-goer of a certain age, you’ll recall the original ABC series. For some it had cult appeal, for others it was campy fun — cheap, stolid …. oh so meller-dramatic. Who can forget the runny makeup, the shaky plywood sets, the flubbed lines? It was “Rocky Horror Show” before “Rocky Horror Show.” For this incarnation, a king’s ransom ($150 million) has been thrown at the Collinwood Manor walls, and what was unintentionally hilarious is now closer to a staid touring company of “Dracula,’’ done straight-faced with an occasional wink by Depp.
On paper, the time-warp premise must have sounded promising. Barnabas, consigned to padlocked coffin by the evil sorceress Angelique (Eva Green), reawakens almost 200 years later with a monstrous thirst. The year: 1972. Sunlight and mirrors are now the least of our vampire’s problems. He has hippies, hallucinogens, women’s lib and “the ugliest woman I’ve ever seen” (Alice Cooper playing himself) to contend with. Confronted with Karen Carpenter on TV, he circles to the back of the set and shouts, “Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!”
Burton makes excellent use of Moody Blues’ still-rapturous “Nights in White Satin” for opening aerial shots, but he flubs badly trying to shoehorn in other iconic period references. Did he honestly think there was a laugh in Barnabas reciting Erich Segal’s “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” to a bunch of stoned free-love types?
Now ensconced in the old manor, Barnabas’s descendants — Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) and brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller) and their kids, Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz) and David (Gulliver McGrath) ‒ have fallen on hard times. Also in residence: Loomis the caretaker (Jackie Earle Haley), who doubles as Barnabas’s faithful Renfield, and young David’s coarse psychiatrist (Helena Bonham Carter, sporting iodine-red hair), who takes it upon herself to “cure” Barnabas.
Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), the recently arrived nanny, sees dead people, one in particular. Not surprising. She’s the reincarnated Jossette, Barnabas’s long-ago girlfriend, who, like the tragic femmes in every other Gothic romance, did a backflip off a seaside cliff.
As he vows to restore the family name, Barnabas repeatedly crosses talons with nemesis Angelique, that “succubus of Satan.” The unholy pair literally climb the walls and shred the curtains during make-up sex. Things become more heated when they square off for the big finish. Chandeliers explode, portraits and ornate wooden carvings come to life. It’s quite spectacular in a ho-hum Harry Potter sort of way. More, it reminds us that all the CG effects and crashing-wave inserts can’t goose a moribund script to life. Depp as Barnabas should have gone the way of “Love Story” and the lava lamp and stay buried.
DARK SHADOWS ✮✮ Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green, Jackie Earle Haley, Chloë Grace Moretz, Helena Bonham Carter. Directed by Tim Burton; scripted by Seth Grahame-Smith from the Dan Curtis series. 113 min. PG-13 (for comic violence and lovemaking)