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Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Movie Review: DARK SHADOWS

Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins
Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins. (PHOTO SUPPLIED)

Movie Reviews
By Bernie Jablonski

It’s very clear to me that Christopher Lee made some kind of Faustian deal with Satan when he first played Dracula in 1958. I’m sure that Peter Cushing, his great friend and co-star, is whiling away his time in Heaven waiting for his dear colleague to come up for an extended visit, but I’m truly wondering if that’s ever going to happen. The Internet Movie Database lists Lee as having been in 274 movies, videogames and TV series- not counting separate episodes- and I believe that, at the tender age of 90, he has a good thirty or forty years left in him. He has a nice one-scene turn in Tim Burton’s latest collaboration with Johnny Depp, Dark Shadows, and even though the scene mostly just propels the story along, he totally convinces as an elderly sea captain.

I’m disappointed that the movie doesn’t have as much recognition, or fun, or life, or novelty as it does in this scene. And novelty is something I look forward to from Tim Burton. Treating Ed Wood as some kind of a hero was novelty. Jettisoning the entire plot of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and turning it into a police procedural was novelty. But even though turning the Gothic horror of the old daytime soap into a comic fish-out-of-water story is somewhat novel, the movie remains a richly atmospheric, wonderfully detailed, self-contained…stuffed sofa of a movie. You know, those old, green or burgundy ones with heavy brocade and fringing around the bottom, collecting dust? Dark Shadows is more a museum piece than a movie.

Not that it isn’t gorgeous to look at. The movie is set in the New England coastal town of Collinsport, brought to life by a fishing village set constructed at Shepperton Studios in England, and a magnificent old, deteriorating 18th-century mansion set. When Steven Spielberg produced The Haunting (1999), he boasted about the antique doors which had been carved in Morocco expressly for the set of the movie, and because the movie was so bad, this attention to detail seemed like folly. There’s no such high a fall from grace in this movie, but one wishes some of the effort that went into the ambience of Dark Shadows had been spared for the script. The movie could use more genuine wit, as exemplified in the fact that there are so many shots of the waters beating against the rocks, that when it is actually used as a phallic symbol, we miss the point.

The trailers give you an idea of the story, and fond memories of the 1966-1971 TV show might help as well. In 1752, Barnabas Collins (Depp), scion of a wealthy New England fishing baron, rebukes the love of Angelique Bouchard, causing a curse to fall on all whom he loves. Josette DuPres, Barnabas’ betrothed, is compelled to throw herself off a cliff, and when Barnabas, in sheer despair, follows her, he realizes to his horror that he is immortal, transformed into a vampire by Angelique, a witch. She rouses the town against Barnabas, who blame him for his death, and he is buried alive, to be dug up by a construction crew in 1972.

Barnabas finds his family’s old mansion and finds it inhabited with his dysfunctional descendants, who even have their own live-in psychiatrist, the dissipated Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham-Carter). Aghast at the state of inertia his family has fallen into, and outraged that the also-immortal Angelique is running a cannery that has all but destroyed his family’s own business, he vows to bring the Collins’ cannery back as a thriving concern. Angelique, of course, proves to be a formidable opponent.

Johnny Depp is wonderful as Barnabas – my disappointment with the movie certainly doesn’t rest with him. He knows, like every great comic actor, that the key to comedy is playing the absurd absolutely straight, and his droll reaction to 1970s fashion and mores is at the heart of the movie. Eva Green, the doomed Vesper Lynde of Casino Royale, has no trouble embracing her sexy, wild side as Angelique, and she is a perfect foil for Depp’s character. And Michelle Pfeifer, still stunning as a character actress, really embodies the jaded apathy of Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, the Collins matriarch.

Review continues below official trailer

Jackie Earl Healey, as Willie Loomis the butler, reminds us that the least skeevy role he’s probably played was the one he had in The Bad News Bears. Chloe Grace Moretz, who along with Kiernan Shipka, is one of our best current young actresses, has a nice adversarial relationship with Barnabas; I would have liked to have seen her Carolyn Stoddard in more scenes with Johnny Depp. I also would have liked more screen time with young Gulliver McGrath’s David Stoddard. He plays a child who can see ghosts, and with the empathy he creates, I almost wish we had seen the story unfurl through his eyes. Instead, his underuse is right up there with the underuse of the kid from The Shining, whom even though he possessed the eponymous power, remained a very minor character. Bella Heathcote, as Barnabas’ love in both the 18th and 20th centuries, struck me as rather bland, despite those great big doe eyes.

There are some nice moments. While courting Victoria, Josette’s reincarnation, Barnabas reads to her from Erich Segal’s Love Story. Angelique’s boardroom has portraits of her ancestors, all her, of course, and one of them is a finely rendered Art Deco print. There is an amusing scene with Barnabas and some hippies, whom he refers to as “unshaven young people.” Barnabas, trying to bond with Carolyn, a disaffected 13-year-old, recites the lyrics to a Steve Miller song with wonderfully affected Old World elocution. And there is that shot, seen in the trailer, of Barnabas brushing his teeth in front of a mirror, with the mirror revealing nothing but a shuffling toothbrush. The shot is funny, though, and doesn’t make us raise the question of “if Barnabas is a vampire, and can’t see his reflection, why is he watching himself in a mirror?”

There are plenty of moments, however, that don’t work, including a scene of supernatural sex that should bring the house down, but seems more like a vaudeville act running while the big show is being set up. The exit of one character seems jarringly out of place. Bonham-Carter, a real force as an actress, almost seems to be playing her part as a favor to Burton, and the director hasn’t given her enough to work with. The climax of Dark Shadows is a big special-effects battle, which since Alice in Wonderland seems to be a requirement for a Tim Burton movie, and that’s not so bad, but a character revelation made during that scene is just…stupid. The final shot of the movie is supposed to be a shocker, but it’s just…dull.

Who would look forward to watching this movie? I was nine when the series was on, and my eight-year-old sister was into it more than I was, but I can’t see the movie version appealing to her love of the cheesiness that distinguished the TV version. J. J. Abrams’ screen version of Star Trek was appealing to people who hadn’t seen or thought they hated the original, but I can’t see that happening here. If you know any folks, however, who stand in front of the Thorne Miniature Rooms as if they were watching television, you might want to tell them that you have just the movie for them.

Bernie Jablonski teaches Mass Media and Film Study in the Fine Arts Department at Marian Catholic High School.

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