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Arts & Culture

Review: 'Dark Shadows'

Johnny Depp heads the Collins Clan in the remake of the cult TV show "Dark Shadows.:
Warner Brothers
Johnny Depp heads the Collins Clan in the remake of the cult TV show "Dark Shadows.:

This One Should Have Stayed Dead And Buried

There was a time when a film directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp was cause for celebration but sadly those days are gone. Their latest collaboration, an adaptation of the cult TV show "Dark Shadows" (opening May 11 throughout San Diego), is in desperate need of a transfusion.

It's one thing to adapt a TV show like "The Brady Bunch" or "21 Jump Street" -- shows that had fans but not a cult following. And "Dark Shadows" -- which starred the late Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins -- doesn't just have a cult following, it has a rabid fan base. So adapting the long running vampire soap opera is akin to tampering with the holy scripture for some.

Here's a sample of the old show that seemed to hypnotize a generation. And don't laugh, that somber earnestness was part of its appeal.

Dark Shadows-Jonathan Frid-I was a Collins!.mpg

For the film adaptation, Burton decided to give the TV series a silly spin. He resurrects Barnabas Collins (Depp) from 200 years of captivity in a coffin and plops him down in 1970s New England. This opens up all sorts of opportunities for lame vamp-out-of-time jokes (you know, like the ones crammed into the TV spots about readying the horses). The tone seems more akin to the comedy style of the old "Munsters" TV show rather than "Dark Shadows."

The trailers for the film were scary but for the wrong reasons. There seemed to be little affection and no respect for the beloved original TV show. After seeing the film, I have to say that it's not nearly as bad as the trailers led me to expect. So it's not offensively bad, just bad.

I attended the sneak preview of the new film with a trio of die hard fans, one of which had just bought the Barnabas Collins 12 inch doll at a monster convention. My own memories of the show were mostly about sneaking out of the house in the afternoon to watch it because -- as I recall -- my mom thought afternoons were for playing outside and not sitting inside watching TV, even if it was for a vampire soap opera.

Beth Reno, a self-confessed fan of both TV's "Dark Shadows" and Johnny Depp, diplomatically said after the screening, "After anticipating the new 'Dark Shadows' movie since it was announced I was put off by the scary bad trailers the last few weeks. Fortunately the movie was better than the trailers would have you believe. The first 20 minutes are the best with Gothic atmospheric like the original series. I don't think it will please die hard fans of the original TV series, but many in the audience who were unfamiliar with the original series seemed to enjoy the movie."

Ramie Tateishi teaches about pop culture at National University. After seeing the film, and visibly wincing a few times, he tells me, "I remember running home right when school ended at 2:50 to catch 'Dark Shadows,' which started at 3:00. One thing I admired about 'Dark Shadows' was how its budgetary limitations didn't stand in the way of its imaginative spirit, a quality that was similar to another one of my childhood favorites, 'Doctor Who.' Tim Burton's pre-credit sequence did an excellent job of establishing a moody, gothic atmosphere, particularly through use of lighting and fog. The film also contained some very evocative shots of waves crashing against rocks that echoed the opening titles of the original series. As is typical for soap operas, 'Dark Shadows' focused primarily on the interactions among a central cast of characters who rarely, if ever, were seen to interact with the outside world, thus the scenes in the film involving Barnabas hosting a ball for the townspeople and conducting business with the local fishermen helped to give the film a different sensibility."

Miguel Rodriguez, who runs the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival and guest blogs for Cinema Junkie, was the most openly disappointed. He said after seating through the film, "The best parts of the 'Dark Shadows' film are also what make it disappointing. The production design was excellent, as were some of the more haunting parts of the score. There were also some scenes that really offered a delightful taste of dark gothic melodrama that made the show so magnetic to so many people. Unfortunately, those aspects serve only to provide sad glimpses at what could have been, were a good 'Dark Shadows' movie to have been made. The rest of the movie is a mess of forced caricatures screaming at each other among an endless stream of unfunny and seemingly disrespectful fish-out-of-water gags."

The film continues a run of disappointing Burton-Depp collaborations beginning with "Sleepy Hollow" and continuing with "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "Sweeney Todd," and "Alice in Wonderland." These film, with the addition of "Dark Shadows" makes me wonder where the wickedly talented folks who conspired so brilliantly on "Edward Scissorhands" and "Ed Wood" disappeared to. Those films are amongst my all-time favorites, and both displayed not only a sense of the weird and strange but also a sense of affection for the characters being depicted. But after that, this collaborative duo seem to have focused only on the weird and not the wonderful. They have gotten so bad that I actually look to each of their new films together with a sense of dread rather than eager anticipation.

As Rodriguez mentioned, the film looks great. The 70s vivid color palette set against the gray gothic elements sets up a nice contrast. There's even one lovely ghost scene. But after that it's all about bad vamp jokes not even worthy of Edgar and Allan Frog. It tries to make meager connections to the original and very long-running TV show but has no sense of clever fun or even fan love. Barnabas and Victoria were always the central focus of the TV show but in the movie, Victoria or Vicky (Bella Heathcoate) goes missing for a couple reels. You almost forget she is even in the film.

Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins.
Warner Brothers
Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins.

There really isn't acting to speak of because there is no attempt at character development, just character design. I feel like Burton and Depp spend more time figuring out how a character should look than on who the character is. The same goes for the rest of the cast. Characters only exist as gags, and cheap gags at that. None of the humor is clever or even fresh. Jonathan Frid makes an ever so fleeting cameo at a ball but only fans would recognize him.

"Dark Shadows" (rated PG-13 for comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking) is undead on arrival. It is unlikely to please fans of the TV show but may make the younger Johnny Depp fans (especially those who grew up with "Sleepy Hollow" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" as points of reference, like that poor generation that grew up thinking "The Phantom Menace" was what a "Star Wars" film is all about) happy. If this is the kind of adaptation Burton and Depp had in mind, all I can say is why did they even bother.

To get a little more insight into the "Dark Shadows" TV show fan base, check out "This American Life's" episode on fan conventions.

Companion viewing: "Dark Shadows" (TV series), "Dracula" (with Frank Langella), "Ed Wood"