Monday, May 14, 2012

Dark Shadows / **½ (PG-13)

Barnabas Collins: Johnny Depp
Angelique Bouchard: Eva Green
Elizabeth Collins Stoddard: Michelle Pfeiffer
Dr. Julia Hoffman: Helena Bonham Carter
Victoria Winters: Bella Heathcote
Carolyn Stoddard: Chloë Grace Moritz
Willie Loomis: Jackie Earl Haley
Roger Collins: Johnny Lee Miller
David Collins: Gulliver McGrath

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Tim Burton. Written by Seth Grahame-Smith and John August. Based on the television series created by Dan Curtis. Running time: 113 min. Rated PG-13 (for comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking).

I went into Tim Burton’s new movie “Dark Shadows” without ever having seen a single episode of the 1970s television series upon which it is based. Considering how Burton tends to make cinematic properties his own, the experience of the TV show probably isn’t necessary to the cinematic one. I had heard about the series and had always planned to check it out someday. What I was unaware of was that it had been a daytime soap opera. Now, doesn’t that sound interesting? A daytime soap about a family with a vampire.

In Burton’s film, Barnabas Collins (played by Burton favorite Johnny Depp) is a member of the aristocratic Collins family who sail from Liverpool, England to the New World in 1752. They establish the town of Collinsport, Maine based around their fishing empire, and young Barnabas discovers the love of his life in Jossette DuPree. Everything is going swimmingly for Barnabas if not for the fact that another woman, Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green, “Casino Royale”), has set her heart on his.

Angelique explores the world of witchcraft and hypnotizes Jossette into throwing herself off a cliff. Barnabas, unable to live without Jossette, follows her to her watery grave. Unbeknownst to him, however, Angelique has already cursed him to the life of the undead and turned him into a vampire. Unable to die, Barnabas finds Angelique has set the town against him and has him buried alive. All this is told with the stunning gothic flare at which Burton excels.

Skip to 1972. The Collins family still lives in their giant gothic mansion while the town of Collinsport moves on without them. Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer, “Hairspray”) is the matriarch, who tries to keep the family from disappearing altogether. Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moritz, “Let Me In”) is her daughter, a teenager who finds drama in everything. Roger (Johnny Lee Miller, “Eli Stone”) is her alcoholic brother, who adds no value whatsoever to the family reputation. David (Gulliver McGrath, “Hugo”) is his troubled son. Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter, “The King’s Speech”) is a live-in psychiatrist to help David deal with the fact that he claims to see his dead mother. Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley, “Watchmen”) is the grounds keeper. And, the latest addition is Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote, “In Time”), who looks startlingly similar to Barnabas’s former love. The fishing empire has fallen to a competing company, which is still run by Angelique. No one suspects she’s over two centuries old as her magic has kept her young.

Up to this point, the story has been in a holding pattern to allow for set up. Now, Barnabas’s coffin is discovered in a construction site for a new McDonalds restaurant. We know they are building a McDonalds because when Barnabas rises, the large illuminated sign bearing the Golden Arches and the company’s long time signature claiming “Over 65 Million Served” catches his attention. The camera holds this shot so long we begin to wonder just how much money McDonalds contributed to the film’s budget.

The mood shifts gears for some fish-out-of-water humor, as Barnabas must adjust his 17th Century sensibilities to the world of the 1970s. The film’s soundtrack is like a nostalgia trip back through your parents’ old 8-track collection of early seventies golden greats. I’ve still got Karen Carpenter crooning “Top of the World” running through my head. This makes for a few solid chuckles, but nothing much that hasn’t been seen before with other movies set in the ‘70s.

Then the story shifts back to the battle between Barnabas and Angelique. Barnabas is determined to restore the Collins family name, and Angelique is determined to make Barnabas hers or destroy the Collins’ altogether. Barnabas, of course, notices the similarities between Victoria and his lost love.

It isn’t really a bad story, but it never really seems to gather any steam. There is no economy of characters to be found here. Only four of the characters really factor into the storyline in any significant way. Of course, Barnabas and Angelique dominate most of the activity. Victoria factors in heavily to their relationship. Finally, the meddling Dr. Hoffman adds the only unexpected element of the plot. The other characters might as well not even exist except as background. This is most unfortunate in the case of Pfeiffer, who is still such a cinematic presence. It’s too bad she didn’t have more to do with what ultimately unfolds as the fate of the Collins family.

The movie looks great. Burton’s production design out does itself in terms of evoking both the gothic nature of the Collinswood Mansion and the 70s period setting. The cast is top notch and can’t be blamed due to their colorful performances. Depp is superb as the undead Barnabas. Green is vicious and sexy as Angelique. The special effects are wonderful and only add to the rich production values. It’s the execution of the drama and humor that seem to be lacking any living tissue.

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