Drama/Comedy, Gothic Horror, Fantasy; U.S.; 2012; 113 minutes; directed by Tim Burton
Medium: Currently in Theaters
Rating: 2.5 (5-point system)
Dark Shadows. Almost nobody my age can forget it. It gnaws at you. It takes you by the throat. It leaves you thirsting for more. But enough of the vampire clichés and puns. Let’s talk a little about what this cultural phenomena was for those too young to have experienced it.
Dark Shadows started out as a gothic soap opera back in 1966, and at first it was a certified bomb . Gothic didn’t sell back then, and Dark Shadows faced cancellation only six months after its debut. Dan Curtis, the show’s creator, decided to go out in style, and suddenly ghosts started appearing . . . in a daytime soap opera! But things didn’t really take off for Dark Shadows until 1967, with the introduction of Barnabas Collins. Barnabas was a 200-year-old vampire who had been entombed by his father—a man who could not bring himself to destroy his beloved son despite his horrendous affliction.
And how did Barnabas come to be afflicted with this curse? He severely ticked off the wrong lady. He had an affair with the maidservant of his fiancée, Josette du Pres from Martinique. Unfortunately for Barnabas, that maidservant was Angelique Bouchard, a witch whose extraordinary powers were only exceeded by her extraordinary vindictiveness. Angelique summoned up a bat who bit our hero, transforming him into a hideous and foul creature of the night bent on converting Josette so that she might spend eternity with him. In her disgust and horror, Josette leapt to her death. Pretty good setup. Complicated, but good.
Fast forward two centuries later. Barnabas is released from his tomb and returns to the family estate as a ‘long lost cousin from England,’ whereupon he meets Maggie Evans, a resident of Collinsport, Maine, and the apparent reincarnation of his love Josette du Pres. And if all that isn’t complication enough, Angelique has resurrected herself, taken the name of Cassandra Blair, and maneuvered Roger Collins into wedding her and bringing her into the Collins family mansion where she can continue to make Barnabas’ life a living hell.
As one might expect, the ratings shot through the roof. But the demographics weren’t your typical housewife. Suddenly, all across the nation, kids were rushing home and tuning in to watch the bloody mayhem. Unfortunately, back then kids didn’t steer the family budget and what products to buy with it. Despite huge ratings the series was cancelled in 1971.
But everyone knows you simply cannot keep a really great vampire dead for long. In 1991 the series rose from the grave and into prime time on NBC with Ben Cross as Barnabas Collins. Maggie Evans was no longer the reincarnation of Josette. That person now resided in the Collins family governess, Victoria Winters. But, despite great ratings, NBC sabotaged their latest hit by shuffling it around their schedule during Gulf War I. After only thirteen episodes fans were left confused and bewildered by the lack of schedule consistency, and Dark Shadows once again had a stake driven through its heart.
Until 2004. WB Television Network commissioned a pilot starring Alec Newman. This time WB staked our hero and put him back in the ground without ever airing the completed pilot.
Now it’s 2012, and Barnabas has risen from the grave for a fourth time. This Barnabas (Johnny Depp) however is played with much more humor than in past incarnations. The characters of Maggie Evans and Victoria Winters have been rolled into one—a former mental patient named Maggie Evans (Bella Heathcote) who has changed her name to Victoria Winters. Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) is back as well, and she’s just as vindictive, evil, powerful and even more libidinous than ever.
This 2012 resurrection is lighthearted fun. And that’s the problem. Dark Shadows was never meant to be lighthearted fun. Dark Shadows was designed to terrify school children, which is something it did quite well from 1967 until 1971. Later, it mesmerized these same children, now grown up, in prime time, and introduced the character of Barnabas Collins to a whole new generation of children . . . until NBC programmers sabotaged it.
What’s disheartening here are a number of faux pas that should and could have been easily avoided.
First off, this Barnabas seems to relish in telling all his descendants that he’s a vampire rather than taking the more prudent course of concealing his cursed existence. The 1972 setting works, but what’s with all the gags concerning ’70s pop culture? It all seems so out of place in a tale of vampires, witches, revenge, and loves lost. Sure, there are a few good lines (Caroline Stoddard: “Are you stoned?” Barnabas: “They tried stoning me once, my dear. It did not work.”), but the humor seems forced and comes off as contrived and irrelevant to the myriad plots and subplots. And then there’s Mr. Depp’s ridiculous makeup for the part—an unfortunate cross between Count Orlok in the silent classic Nosferatu (check out the long, spidery fingers and extended fingernails) and the pastie-faced zombies in Shawn of the Dead. Part of the terror was not knowing that Barnabas is a vampire. One look at Johnny Depp’s version and all doubts are removed—there’s something definitely wrong with this dude. Finally, the sudden transformation of Caroline Stoddard (no, I’m not going to reveal it) was jarring, distracting, had no logical setup or continuity within the story, and was positively ludicrous in the extreme. For that one scene alone I deducted a half point from my overall rating.
Fans will probably enjoy spending a couple of hours with a demonic “friend” from the past, but ultimately they’ll leave unsatisfied. People unfamiliar with the legacy of Dark Shadows may get a few unexpected chuckles out of it, but not enough to carry the day. In the end it would have been better for all concerned if this Barnabas Collins had been left entombed in Tim Burton’s mind rather than let loose upon unsuspecting theater goers. It’s definitely worth a rental, but it’s not worth even matinee prices.
Or better yet, do yourself a favor and find a copy of the 1970 film House of Dark Shadows to view instead. Unfortunately, that one doesn’t seem to be available on Netflix.