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Dark Shadows: All In The Family

For some reason, Tim Burton’s freshest films are those that he fosters originally, without a source material.  Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Beetlejuice are all classics.  Yet for some reason, all his adaptations: Planet of the Apes, Sweeney Todd, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice In Wonderland, et al, suffer from style over substance, with no real soul.  Now Burton and his muses Johnny Depp and composer Danny Elfman go after a popular TV soap opera from the 60s, the gothic horror Dark Shadows.  Even more puzzling, he turns the bleak drama of the Collins family into a Fish Out Of Water sitcom.

In the prelude, Barnabas Collins (Depp) a regal vampire suffering from a witch’s curse, narrates how his love for one woman and his betrayal of another led to his centuries-long suffering. The spurned witch (Eva Green), after turning him into a vampire, manipulates the town and leads an angry mob to entomb Barnabas for 200 years.

Barnabas rises in the turbulent early 70s, when the Vietnam War raged, feminism was a rally call, and the youth of America had jumped on board the sex-drugs-and-rock-‘n’-roll train. He is flabbergasted by the brave new world. 

The screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith (best-selling author of Pride And Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) is a hodgepodge of past Dark Shadows plots and a bloody version of both Brady Bunch Movie and Down And Out In Beverly Hills as Barnabas implants himself into the 70s Collins clan — a disaster of a family who grow to love and understand each other thanks to their ancestor’s leadership. Grahame-Smith’s script, lazy and filled with obvious puns, is the film’s downfall. 

How Burton handles the proceedings shows HIS lack of interest: It’s as pedestrian as if he showed up on the set, looked at the script and gave up right there.  None of the characterizations rise above cartoon, the jokes don’t land and Burton could have cut a good 20 minutes of flat humor out.  Even the “clever” bits, like Barnabas brushing his teeth with only the toothpaste foam visible in the mirror, seem old hat and shtick-y. 

Where the film works, as in even the Burton films that fail, is visually.  The movie looks gorgeous.  The waterfront captures the small fishing villages of New England so perfectly; it’s almost a commercial for travel-buffs.  The Collinwood Manor is ornate in all its gothic glory. The color scheme is magical.

The cast seems inspired by the art direction more than the script.  Depp fills out his Barnabas outfit with class and Byronic tragedy.  His quizzical eyes are always learning from what he observes.  Michelle Pfeiffer is a hoot as the emotionally drained matriarch of Collinwood.  She’s given little to do but breathes life into all her scenes.  Helena Bonham Carter delights as the lush Jewish analyst with hair color out of a box and the off-balanced walk of a drunkard. 

Eva Green is viciously vivacious as the villainous witch, mocking her former lover while seducing him with every glance.  However, she can’t seem to keep her New England accent.  Her character, like Green, is French, but since she’s over 200 years old and has lived in America since she was seven or eight, the Franco dialect should have melted a century ago.  Chloë Moretz, the star of tomorrow, is given nothing to do but imitate Christina Ricci in her youth (Addams Family, Ice Storm).  After watching her comic bite in her recent episodes of 30 Rock, you wish a better script would have allowed her to tear into the material.

Dark Shadows, the original TV show, has a major cult following even 40 years later, despite its humble production design.  What that show did have was clever characterizations and compelling scripts.  Tim Burton reversed the pyramid here, giving the show a magnificent facelift and filling it with very little substance.  Grade: C


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