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Overstuffed 'Dark Shadows' doesn't hold together

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The creators of American soap operas, for the most part, do what they do (and did what they did) with a regularity that Swiss clock makers would have to respect. They would take a locale (usually a fictional city in a real state), populate it with a number of storybook character types with jobs that seemed a little exciting to the viewers (the Handsome Doctor, the Beautiful Fashion Model, the Evil Queen of the City, et cetera), then run them through all types of melodramatic paces (He's an amnesiac! She's pregnant! They're actually spies!) until stories ran their course or actors' contracts expired or the show was finally canceled.

"Dark Shadows," which aired weekdays on ABC from 1966-71, was a spin on the standard soap trope. Originally envisioned as more standard daytime fare, it became more adventurous, eventually introducing ghosts, witches, werewolves and zombies -- as well as a vampire named Barnabas Collins, who made his debut a year into the show's run -- into a universe that spilled into living rooms from coast-to-coast. The show's end came at the conclusion of its 1,225th episode, but it lived on in fans' hearts, minds and imaginations.

After watching the new feature film adaptation, I'm wondering if maybe it should have just stayed there.

A couple of those fans are behind this new movie version -- director Tim Burton and producer-star Johnny Depp (who plays Barnabas here), marking their eighth collaboration. Unfortunately, there's a disjointedness in the whole affair, like Burton and his screenwriters built a highlight reel out of a couple of years-worth of well-produced TV episodes.

The pre-credits sequence of the movie is a good example of this. In it, we are treated to the story of how Barnabas, along with his parents, came to America back in the 1700s, established a commercial fishing enterprise, and built themselves an extraordinary estate. Barnabas loved a young woman named Josette (Bella Heathcote), but was being lustily pursued by a jealous and particularly vicious witch named Angelique (Eva Green). When he finally rejected the witch's advances -- although it never quite seemed that he was ever running away from her affections with any strenuousness -- Angelique cursed Barnabas by turning him into a vampire, and caused the deaths of his parents and his true love.

That's a lot of material. Almost its own movie, actually, and it's presented in a way that plays more like a "Previously on 'Dark Shadows'" episode opener than a sequence that drops you into the center of a feature film.

The bloat of material is a plague on the movie. See, the opening sequence leads into the body of the film which deals with the modern Collins clan (matriarched by Michelle Pfeiffer) living in the hulking manor Barnabas left behind (and is now rejoining after his accidental release by some construction workers), plus the mysterious new governess (played by Heathcote in a dual role) who joins the household, as well as the orange-haired family shrink (portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter) and -- yep, there's an "and" -- the still youthful-looking Angelique (now known as Angie to the locals) who has spent her centuries building her own empire by destroying the Collins family. (Is there more to this story? Yep. Am I going to go into it? No, 'cause I don't know if we've got enough ink. And when I start saying that...)

Throughout the movie, there are a bunch of expository flashbacks and plot developments, and many of them feel either extraneous (the better to keep the cast busy) or whittled down (the better to keep the movie at a reasonable running time). Indeed, there is a major character development -- one that felt more than a little bit like piling another stack of dirty dishes into an already crammed kitchen sink -- that occurs near the climax and is explained away with a solitary "don't-crunch-too-loud-on-your-popcorn-or-you'll-miss-it" line of dialogue.

It's obvious that Burton and Depp enjoyed "Dark Shadows" as a TV show. Burton apes the camera work done on daytime dramas -- lots of tight close-ups on emotional faces during speeches while keeping another background face in camera view -- while adding his own dark and epically whimsical visual touches.

Depp is good as Barnabas, polite and gentlemanly, even as he goes about his vampirism. Green is equally good as a hypersexual creature whose impure love (which may or may not be the right word) for Barnabas drives her entire existence.

But the movie ends up, ultimately, as a frustrating experience. It plays like a bunch of ideas crammed together, all jostling for position, with none of them able to take hold.

Content advisory: "Dark Shadows" is rated PG-13. There are a few fairly scary scenes where younger kids might cover their eyes as Depp's Barnabas does what non-"Twilight" vampires have a tendency to do; other things that go bump (and shriek and snap and howl) in the night show up here too. There are also a couple of scenes of aggressive coupling, plus a sequence where a gaggle of friendly early-70s (but still PG-13-rated) hippies do what friendly early-70s (but still PG-13-rated) hippies have wont to do. Plus shock-rocker Alice Cooper shows up to give the audience a half-dozen invaluable tips about proper club selection and stance when playing long par-fours. (Okay, not really. He merely channels a younger, and therefore pre-two-handicap-in-golf, version of himself. Still, the lessons might've come in handy...)

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Jeremy Blomstedt
The Entertainment Center