By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
Explaining Johnny Depp’s niche in the film world, my daughter Erin, a promising player in the New York art scene, informed that the lead in Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows” is an iconoclast for the masses. Joanne, her mother, my wife and a college professor, simply exclaimed, “I just want to see my Johnny.” My obsolescence couldn’t be more satisfying.
Neither a fan of the series when it played the small screen from 1966 to 1971, nor of vampires in general, approaching this assignment I would then be Filmdom’s Alexis de Tocqueville, an outsider, the objective surveyor. As such, I bring news that, as long as you’re not expecting too much, this is a decent and rather witty homage to the franchise
Not jealous an iota, on the contrary just glad my competition isn’t Clark Gable or Errol Flynn, I found that Johnny is, well, Johnny, and again quite good at it. In the service of full disclosure, I long held that Depp was my favorite young actor. But time, money and stereotypes being what they are, serious comparisons to Spencer Tracy are now on hold.
All the same, the one-two combination he and filmmaker Burton have so fondly fashioned continues here its bizarre scrollwork, this time invading the gothic ruminations of never-ending love, unholy eternity and good old class distinction. And recent memory doesn’t recall a better rendition of a well-known axiom than is etched here by Eva Green.
She is Angelique Bouchard, the lowly but beautiful servant who Mr. Depp’s Barnabas Collins, prince apparent of Collinsport, Maine’s, namesake Brahmins, trifled with to a terrible and tragic fault. Angelique effusively illustrates that indeed hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and that it’s double coupons if said jilted female is a bona fide witch.
Yipes! Young sons should see this before being allowed to date. But not too young, as the PG-13 rating barely escapes the R some of the scariness surely deserves. One scene, wherein incompetent parents commit their troubled little daughter to an insane asylum, had me worried for the tots whose equally lousy parents had dragged them to the theater.
It’s an odd mix for a so-called mainstream movie expected to gross big at the Multiplex. But most of it’s fun, if not always good clean fun…jabs at, and allusions to, old tastes, new culture and just about anything else that passes under the purview of Mr. Burton and writers John August and Seth Grahame-Smith whilst singing a paean to the source soap.
Set in 1972 with a prologue two hundred years afore to bring us up to speed on all the lore, things get bumping in the night when workmen, R.I.P., discover an enchained coffin. Well, darn the future nail salon that probably had the boys digging that night. But if you believe in destiny, this is where Barnabas Collins resumes the search for his.
Naturally, or rather, unnaturally, this includes finding his lady fair. While he might have dallied with Angelique, when it comes to Josette, played by Bella Heathcote, his love is apparently timeless. All of which led to that early grave now unearthed. Well, what’s a resurfaced vampire to do after 200 years rest? Why, visit the old family manse of course.
No surprise, as is the usual case when the prodigal son returns to the homestead, things have gone forlorn and to seed. The once majestic Collinwood Mansion now looks like the before shot in a home improvement shyster’s brochure. And once inside its peeling walls, Barnabas notes that his motley brood of scions could use a bit of refurbishing themselves.
It’s Angelique’s curse. Emoting the plight and aura, yet still standing proud is Michelle Pfeiffer’s Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, tacitly accepted standard bearer. Her brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller) is a wastrel and a cad. Bearing the brunt is David (Gulliver McGrath), his sweet, motherless son. Barnabas is appalled, but then soon uplifted by a presence.
Enter Victoria, David’s recently arrived tutor who looks just like Josette, a dead ringer if you will. Sorting this all out is a job for a revamped vampire…to right old wrongs, spruce up the family crest, revitalize the failed fishing empire that once richened the Collins clan and see if true love can indeed withstand the ravages of time, evil spell notwithstanding.
It’s more interesting than it is funny, an amalgam of ideas and vignettes drawing far more attention to the artistic process than the rote retelling of its prosaic vampire tale. A great assemblage of pertinent but borrowed songs, including “Nights in White Satin,” is the telltale coup de grâce, divulging that, alas, “Dark Shadows” has no soul of its own.
“Dark Shadows,” rated PG-13, is a Warner Bros. Pictures release directed by Tim Burton and stars Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer and Eva Green. Running time: 113 minutes