"...the problem with this film stems from the overall vision..."

Cynical Adaptation Substitutes Chills for Laughs

(051812) This is a time of Hollywood reboots, re-imaginings and regurgitations in which the prevalent attitude seems to be if it worked once, it can work again. There’s also the other dynamic that has fallen into place in which it’s been deemed necessary to drastically alter a concept from its original incarnation and present it to the modern audience in a very different way.

For instance, 21 Jump Street went from being a cop drama to a full-blown comedy; the ‘60s sitcom The Munsters is being turned into a horror drama on NBC. Now there is the eighth Tim Burton/Johnny Depp collaboration, Dark Shadows.

Both Burton and Depp have professed their childhood love for the original Dark Shadows, offering up the classic line, “I used to run home from school every day to watch it,” repeating the mantra of so many veteran fans. They’ve also said that this movie has been inspired by their memories and their overall love for the show…. Now I have been a DS fan since 1968, having caught the show by accident back then. But if anyone was to come to me and try to get me to share my memories or impressions of the show, it would never be anywhere close to what is being presented in theaters.

The film starts off seriously with an 18th-century flashback and ends with a special-effects free-for-all. But in between it’s just an old favorite revamped as a new comedy, from filmmakers who clearly prefer working in a jocular, not jugular, vein. But that’s not what made the original “Dark Shadows” so much fun — and Burton and Depp should know it. Yes, everything about the show was overdone — starting with that redundancy of the title. But it was never done out of mockery. Even though actors sometimes forgot lines or props failed to work, the show never stooped to the low sarcasm of camp. It aimed, instead, for the heightened emotions of melodrama. Real melodrama — and that’s what even the lowliest of daytime shows always aspired to — embraces heightened emotions. It’s why there’s an “opera” in “soap opera,” acknowledging the genre’s over-the-top plots and passions. That’s changed over the years, as TV serials moved to prime time and went for plush, tongue-in-chic camp. But real melodramas were never meant to be played like the aren’t-they-fabulous “Desperate Housewives.” Their models, instead, were the played-straight, truly desperate housewives of Barbara Stanwyck weepies, Joan Crawford dramas. Except, in the case of “Dark Shadows,” with fangs. Dark Shadows combined the elements of the Hollywood tear-jerker with Victorian gothic literature (ie: the Bronte sisters) and added fangs.

Some of the essential ingredients are certainly there – Barnabas’ love for Josette Du Pres and her reincarnation in the present, the curse of vampirism placed upon him by the scorned witch Angelique, the odd Collins family, Collinwood (which looks stunning, thanks to production designer Rick Heinrichs and his collaboration with Burton), Dr. Julia Hoffman, David Collins and his late mother (who isn’t a Phoenix as she was on the old show, but is definitely supernatural in nature), etc. – but it’s all presented in such a bizarre way. Not bizarre as in typically Burton-esque, just…. strange. As promised by the filmmakers, things start off seriously enough in the past, but once Barnabas is freed from his coffin, the “humor” of him adjusting to the world of 1972 kicks into play. The idea of playing that humor is fine – one element never really explored in any depth in the past was Barnabas’ fish out of water situation, but, unfortunately, many of his observations here simply aren’t that funny. And then any time the film does seem to connect with anything in a remotely serious manner, something truly inane happens to take the audience out of that moment. Which is so incredibly frustrating, because when you look at the central plot – the battle between Barnabas and Angelique and the preservation of the Collins family – there was definitely a strong enough concept there, but it’s all marred by the determination to camp up virtually every situation.

Johnny Depp's portrayal of Barnabas is a major problem. Since Pirates of the Caribbean, each subsequent performance has seen a once skilled actor, resorting to over-the-top stylish eccentricities. Depp now wears more makeup and elaborate costumes then his female co-stars. He rarely suggests any of the essence brought to the role by the late Jonathan Frid (who is on screen with his fellow co-stars from the original series for what amounts to about two seconds). Too often Burton has the audience laughing at the character rather than with him. This Barnabas, trying to find a comfortable place to sleep, does so in a closet, a cardboard box, upside down against a curtain, etc. And when he inadvertently steps into a shaft of sunlight, he’s the last one to notice that he’s on fire, which is apparently okay since someone is conveniently nearby with a bucket of water to douse him. In his battle with Angelique, at one point she projectile vomits what looks like a stream of pea soup circa The Exorcist, which he manages to elude. But then she does it again and he ends up completely covered in the substance, looking like someone who’s been slimed at the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards. Depp goes for easy laughs and, as always, Burton is too taken with the art direction to reel him in. In fact, all the men here embrace the obvious. (As Barnabas’ shiftless henchman, Jackie Earle Haley makes the original, John Karlen, look subtle — a truly dubious achievement).

And wait until you get to the ending. Things play out in such a way – with so many random elements thrown into the fray – that you’re left with the feeling that rather than attempting to preserve any sort of memory of Dark Shadows or paving the way for future generations to enjoy the concept, there was a hidden agenda in place to ensure the polar opposite.

Most of the cast is fine – all playing things a little eccentrically, but effectively. Only Eva Green — locked in a two-front battle with both her accent and her hair — fails to convince. Sneering and snarling, she comes across less as Barnabas’ eternal frienemy Angelique than as a drag performer from some camp revue. Sadly, that seems to be just what Burton wanted. And, as noted earlier, the core concept works, but for anyone who thinks the problem with Dark Shadows stems from the challenge of taking five years worth of a soap opera and distilling it to a feature film, they couldn’t be more wrong. According to screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith, the earliest stages of this film had a “much darker” screenplay by John August, but then the decision was made to lighten it up and August’s script was discarded. As a result, the problem with this film stems from the overall vision of Burton, Grahame-Smith and Johnny Depp, which was clouded at best, callous and cynical at worst.

Clearly, they made the movie they wanted to make. It’s just not the movie this “Dark Shadows” fan hoped to see.

Directed by:    Tim Burton
Written by:    Seth Grahame-Smith. Based on the TV series
 Dark Shadows created by Dan Curtis
Starring:    Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green
Released:    05/11/12 (USA)
Length:    113 minutes
Rating:    PG-13 for comic horror violence, sexual content,
 some drug use, language and smoking

DARK SHADOWS © 2012 Warner Bros. Pictures Distribution
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