Dark Shadows is outdated, unwelcome and unbearable. Based on a cornball daytime soap opera from the 1960s about an 18th-century vampire living in a 20th-century town on the coast of Maine, it’s so silly that you’d have to be 10 years old to find the boo factor.
Tim Burton, the director who never grew up, and his favorite star Johnny Depp, who is both fearless and overrated, follow the Gothic nightmare pranks of Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow and Sweeney Todd with more gross and dross in this cinematic aberration that gives things from the grave a dullness they don’t deserve. Good actors do find themselves drawn to this kind of fiddle-faddle. And why not? It must be fun to bare fangs dripping with boysenberry pancake syrup and fly into crystal chandeliers that wreak havoc on haunted house sets that look like Hollywood even though they’re shot in London. The plot scarcely survives another rehash, but there might be somebody who had too much taste in the 1960s to watch Jonathan Frid creep his way through the spiderwebs of Collinwood Manor in makeup of Chinese rice powder. (As a Tim Burton in-joke, he makes a guest appearance as a party guest here, shortly before he bit the dust for good in real life.) He was Barnabas Collins, whose family moved from Liverpool to Collinsport, Maine in 1752 and established a fishing empire. Unfortunately, he spurned the romantic advances of an evil witch named Angelique, who cast a spell that turned Barnabas into a vampire, drove his lover Josette to her death from the top of a cliff, and then buried him alive for 200 years. So much for background.
Cut to 1970. Construction workers dig up the casket of the mildewed Barnabas, who appears in the body of Johnny Depp, whose ancient Dracula cloak starts a fashion trend. Times have changed, and most of the fun comes from watching Barnabas trying to adjust to pop tunes, Iggy Pop posters, lava lamps and Erich Segal’s Love Story. He thinks the McDonald’s logo is a sign from Mephistopheles. In the role played on the old TV show by Joan Bennett, Michelle Pfeiffer is now the dowager of the family that has seen its fortune depleted and Collinwood Manor fall into ruins. She does the best she can to control her useless brother, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), his neurotic 10-year-old son, David (Gully McGrath), and her gruesome daughter Carolyn (Chloe Moretz), who may or may not be a werewolf. There is also David’s chain-smoking, pill-popping psychiatrist, Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter in a flaming red wig), a cretinous caretaker (Jackie Earle Haley) and little David’s lovely nanny (Bella Heathcote), the reincarnation of Barnabas’ dead Josette. Lurking in the shadows is the 200-year-old Angelique (sexy Eva Green, who steals every scene). Barnabas takes one look at his old nemesis and screeches things like “Succubus of Satan!” and “Harlot of the Devil!” It’s supposed to be a Halloween party with comic overtones, but the script by Seth Grahame-Smith is stupider than The Addams Family. He’s got two more dorky creep shows on the way: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and the soon-to-be-released Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Gosh, we’re lucky.
It doesn’t get any sillier than this, but I’m sure the Burton-Depp team will think of something. This time around the cemetery, the writing is stale, the jokes are corny, the blood as watery as recycled communion wine. To be charitable, I did laugh a few times. Especially when the decadent, dysfunctional Collins family drives through the town in a classic Chevy station wagon to the music from A Summer Place. There are also guest appearances by Christopher Lee, who has played plenty of bloodsuckers himself back in the day, and by aging wacko rocker Alice Cooper, who looks more like a vampire than Barnabas and is much too old for this kind of kid stuff. Overacting like a road company Bela Lugosi in Barbra Streisand glue-on nails and more mascara than Cher, Johnny Depp is about as scary as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Talk about cinema as self-delusion. Dark Shadows is dead on arrival, in more ways than one, and stays that way.
Running Time 113 minutes
Written by Seth Grahame-Smith (screenplay) and John August (story)
Directed by Tim Burton
Starring Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer and Eva Green