Thursday, May 10, 2012

'Dark Shadows' casts too small a spell

It's not exactly cursed, but this Tim Burton/Johnny Depp collaboration is as dramatically flat as it is visually elaborate.

I can't say I was overjoyed when I first heard that Johnny Depp planned to reunite with Tim Burton for a movie in which Depp would play 200-year-old Barrnabas Collins, a vampire and the most memorable character in Dark Shadows, which first appeared as a TV soap opera in 1966.

Although HBO's True Blood looms, and I plan to watch it, I'm close to being vampired out. I'm also a bit tired of watching Depp bury himself under piles of make-up and bizarre costumes. The campy prancing of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies has worn me out.

A friend used to say that by the late stages of his career, Marlon Brando had stopped being an actor and had turned himself into a special effect. Although Depp hasn't gone quite so far off the deep end, he's also becoming something of a specialty item. Need some first-class comic weirdness? Call Depp.

Depp's next two movies -- The Lone Ranger (as Tonto) and Pirates of the Caribbean 5 (again as Captain Jack Sparrow) -- don't exactly promise a return to Donnie Brasco form. I'm by no means suggesting that Depp's mailing in his performances, but he does seem to be spending a lot of time writing pretty much the same letter.

Burton, who now has collaborated with Depp on eight movies, seems in need of a creative re-charge, as well.

The opening of Dark Shadows -- eerie and ominously dark -- turned my initial fears into hope. Maybe Burton would accomplish something amazing, namely boosting soap opera into the category of grand opera, creating a movie that was both mysterious and sprawling.

It was not to be.

Depp and Burton have devoted their considerable skills to a mostly superfluous enterprise that's rich in Gothic atmosphere and visual creativity, but which doesn't have much else going for it.
Working from a screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith, Burton creates a movie that too seldom gets beyond random chuckles.

And there's something inherently troubling here: Putting this much effort and production value into Dark Shadows seems roughly equivalent to performing open heart surgery for a mild case of indigestion. At the risk of losing track of my metaphors, this is overkill.

Burton and Depp are too accomplished to fail entirely. Dark Shadows has its moments as it brings Barnabas, who became a vampire in the 1800s, into the 1970s. Newly arrived in the disco era, Barnabas encounters everything from macrame to mirror balls to bitterness about the Vietnam War.

Depp plays his vampire as straight as Barnabas's rigid posture. When Barnabas addresses a group of pot-smoking hippies, Depp's comic-timing proves impeccable. "It is with sincere regret that I must kill all of you," he says. Barnabas's failure to see the irony in the formality of his remark makes the moment amusing.

A beautifully mounted prologue sets up the vampire part of the story. Barnabas is turned into a vampire by a witch (Eva Green), a woman he ditched in favor a fair-haired beauty (Bella Heathcote). Green'a Angelique takes her revenge by casting a spell that forces Heathcote's character to leap off a cliff.

A stricken Barnabas follows, but rather than dying in the crashing surf below, he's turned into a vampire by Angelique, who wants him to endure his grief eternally. To add to his suffering, she binds him in chains and buries him.

All of these actors turn up in Collinsport, Maine, in 1972. Still a witch, Green's character has taken over the town's shipping industry. Heathecote's Victoria Winters has become a governess, who works for the Collins family, which occupies a 200-room mansion, a dilapidated emblem of faded glory.

When a crew of hapless construction workers digs up the coffin in which Angelique buried Barnabas, he springs into action, vowing to restore the family's stature.

The rest of the cast includes Michelle Pfeiffer as the matron of the Collins family; Chloe Grace Moretz as the family's sullen teen-ager; Cully McGrath as David, the troubled boy of the clan; and Jonny Lee Miller as David's shiftless father.

Sporting a shocking red wig, Helena Bonham Carter portrays Julia, a doctor who has been hired to help restore David's mental health. Jackie Earle Haley appears as the family's caretaker, a scowling lump of a man whom Barnabas recruits as his attendant.

Before the movie concludes, Burton wheels out a barrel full of special effects, and he ends with a flurry of gothic romanticism that's not unlike the romanticism of the Twilight movies, only more grandly and more operatically expressed.

Burton's lavishly designed set pieces, a cameo from Alice Cooper and occasional humorous asides aren't enough to make something consistently enjoyable out of this extravagantly mounted entertainment. Maybe Dark Shadows shouldn't have been exhumed, but left to molder in the nearest pop-cultural graveyard.

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