‘Dark Shadows’ cursed by formula

Article Published: May. 17, 2012 | Modified: May. 17, 2012
‘Dark Shadows’ cursed by formula

Johnny Depp stars in ‘Dark Shadows.’

When it comes to style, director Tim Burton (“Beetlejuice”) has made himself a macabre little niche.

With, perhaps, the exception of his dismal “Planet of the Apes” reimagining, Burton’s style is so distinct you can see it coming a moonlight mile away.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except for when that style trumps substance. That’s the case with “Dark Shadows,” Burton’s comic take on the 1970s gothic soap opera of the same name.

Johnny Depp (“The Rum Diary”) plays Barnabas Collins, an 18th-century aristocratic playboy cursed by a spurned lover. It just so happens this lover, Angelique (Eva Green, “Casino Royale”), is a witch, meaning that curse is literal. Angelique kills Barnabas’ fiancée, Josette (Bella Heathcote, “In Time”), and then dooms him to immortality as a vampire, seeing to it that he’s locked away and buried for centuries.

His coffin unwittingly uncovered by a group of construction workers, Barnabas awakens two centuries later – in the 1970s. He returns to the Maine fishing town of Collinsport (named after his once prominent family), baffled by the trappings of the Nixon era and disheartened to find the family fishing business in shambles.

Even his once proud manor, Collinwood, has fallen into dire disrepair. It’s there he meets the surviving Collinses – matriarch Elizabeth Stoddard Collins (Michelle Pfeiffer, “What Lies Beneath”), her perpetually sneering teenage daughter, Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz, “Kick Ass”), scheming brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller, Showtime’s “Dexter”), Roger’s troubled son, David (Gulliver McGrath, “Hugo”), David’s live-in psychiatrist, Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter, “Fight Club”) and drunk caretaker Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley, “Watchmen”).

Only Elizabeth, however, knows Barnabas’ secret, which she agrees to keep mum, provided he helps get the business booming again. Since Barnabas’ underground incarceration, another fishing company has flourished – one run by the apparently immortal Angelique, whose love/hate relationship with Barnabas has festered into an all-out grudge against all things Collins.

Meanwhile, Barnabas finds himself enamored with David’s new governess, Victoria, who is the spitting image of his long-lost Josette, convincingly so because she’s also played by Heathcote. This, combined with Barnabas’ successful efforts to restore the company, fuels Angelique’s fury. As she puts it, if she can’t have Barnabas, nobody can, and that soon results in violence.

To be fair, I’d never watched the series on which this was based, but Burton’s “Dark Shadows” has plenty of soap opera-ish elements, which sometimes seem out of place in this comic reimagining. Since they’re confined to one movie – as of yet – many of these plot points are left open-ended, creating a slapdash sort of feel without any closure.

Yes, it’s an homage, but the cinematic soap is poorly lathered, based on the assumption that the audience already knows and cares for these characters, all of whom, with the exception of Barnabas, are barely developed.

As Barnabas, however, Depp is hilarious, gleefully playing a bloodsucking fish out of water, whose 18th-century, gentlemanly demeanor clashes with the age of free love, lava lamps, Alice Cooper (“The ugliest woman I’ve ever seen,” he says) and Chevy station wagons. His delivery – and Barnabas gets the best lines – is solid, as he relishes every syllable of every word in every sentence, and his reactions to “modern” contrivances are oftentimes hysterical.

Most of the other characters, however, are instantly forgettable. Moretz, who usually shines in every role under the sun, sneers her way through the entire film, while Green’s performance is almost embarrassing at times – especially so in the final act, which is nothing more than a CGI-laden, convoluted mess reminiscent of that lousy 1999 “The Haunting” remake.

The bulk of “Dark Shadows” works on basic comic levels. The first hour is harmlessly entertaining, thanks primarily to Depp and Burton’s sense of humor, but the whole suffers from the Burton formula.

It’s kind of like New Coke vs. Coca-Cola Classic. Classic Burton, e.g. “Beetlejuice,” “Batman” and “Ed Wood,” celebrated the weird, all of them tales of outcasts struggling to control their typically bizarre inner demons.

Modern Burton – much of which involves a pale Johnny Depp and shoddy, cartoonish CGI – no longer celebrates the weird, as it’s already built in. Sure, it’s gussied up and polished, but Burton’s grown comfortable with it. It’s his thing, his calling card. By default, weird becomes normal, which is the last thing you’d expect from a director like Burton. Truth, I guess, is stranger – or weirder – than fiction.

“Dark Shadows,” rated PG-13 for comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking, is playing at Regal Cinema 7 in Boone. For show times, see page 12-B or visit http://www.mountaintimes.com/movies.

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