Friday, May 11, 2012

Dark Shadows: Toothless

Dark Shadows (2012) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: PG-13, and somewhat generously, for comic horror violence, profanity, drug use and considerable sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.11.12

The casting is divine, the one-liners are appropriately snarky, and Johnny Depp's slow takes and sidelong glances are, well, to die for.

Young Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz) and David (Gulliver McGrath) don't know
what to make of their newly introduced "distant relation," Barnabas (Johnny
Depp), except for the blindingly obvious fact that he's a total square, when it
comes to contemporary (1972) pop culture.
But to quote the heroine of the previous collaboration between Depp and director Tim Burton, this new big-screen take on Dark Shadows isn’t such a much. It’s slow, self-indulgent and — worst of all — rather boring.

Screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith — working from a story he concocted with John August — may have tried too hard to replicate the creaky, somnambulant tone that characterized Dan Curtis’ legendary daytime soap, during its reign from 1966 to ’71. The plot here drifts haphazardly, with disparate elements either left dangling or brought to hurried resolutions that seem anticlimactic (notably, one primary character’s rather abrupt and unsatisfactory demise).

Centuries-old vampire Barnabas Collins (Depp) also demonstrates a rather inconsistent aversion to daylight. In one scene, the slightest touch of sunlight’s dappled rays on his skin prompts smoke and even fire ... and yet he spends much of this storyline wandering about by day (and let’s not pretend his hat offers sufficient protection).

The local citizens of bucolic Collinsport, Maine, also come and go at whim. When the film finally builds to a frenzied-mob climax, Frankenstein-style, everybody — including a squad of cops in several police cars — storms majestic Collinwood Manor. A few eyeblinks later, during a real estate-wrecking battle royale, all these bystanders are gone.

Granted, we get a token clip of cops telling everybody to go home, because “there’s nothing to see here” ... but the logical response to that idiotic remark, at that particular juncture, would have been a defiant “Are you kidding?” from everybody present. Besides which, there’s no reason the cops also would have vanished.

Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.

Credit where due, though: Former Bond babe Eva Green’s Angelique Bouchard is one helluva nasty witch. Green is a delicious, dynamic blend of saucy, smoldering carnality and bone-chilling malevolence; she’s far more engaging and entertaining than this film’s star. At the risk of stating the obvious, Green’s Angelique is ferociously, vibrantly alive, whereas Depp’s Barnabas too often suffers from coffin-lag.

I expected better of Grahame-Smith, who burst on the scene a few years ago with his genre-bending novel, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (getting its own big-screen adaptation June 22). Pacing is everything in a full-blooded vampire tale, as Grahame-Smith well knows. Why, then, does so much of this Dark Shadows feel like it’s wandering aimlessly in a Barnabas-induced hypnotic haze?

I guess Depp (who also co-produced) and Burton shoulder the blame, for their giggling desire to pause on every double-entendre, every droll reference to Curtis’ original series, and every aspect of production designer Rick Heinrichs’ admittedly awesome handling of the Collins mansion. (Heinrichs won a well-deserved Academy Award for his similar work on an earlier Burton/Depp collaboration, 1999’s Sleepy Hollow.)

That’s a lot of pausing, and the pacing — and plot — suffer correspondingly.

A lengthy 18th century prologue establishes Barnabas’ origins, as the favored son who benefits from a family fishing empire that transforms an isolated coastal corner of Maine into a seaport named for the Collins clan. Alas, Barnabas unwisely dallies with a servant girl (Angelique) who, unbeknownst to him, happens to be a witch. (A lot of them ran around the original 13 colonies back in the day, donchaknow.)

When Barnabas transfers his affections to the lovely, more appropriately aristocratic Josette DePres (Bella Heathcote, suitably ethereal), Angelique flies into a magic-laden rage. In a few tragic seconds, Josette is dead, and Barnabas has been transformed into a vampire and locked into a chained and buried coffin, where he’ll suffer conscious, undead torment as the years pass.

Many years. Two centuries, in fact.

Cut to 1972, the era of free love, rock ’n’ roll and nascent women’s rights. Remnants of the clan still reside in Collinwood, starting with matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her rebellious teenage daughter, Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz). They share the manor with Elizabeth’s ne’er-do-well brother, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), who badly neglects his lonely, imaginative 10-year-old son, David (Gully McGrath).

Concern over the boy’s “condition” has prompted the presence of a live-in psychiatrist, Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), who spends more time dispensing alcohol than wisdom. The household is rounded out by long-suffering caretaker Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley).

Collinwood has fallen into disrepair, the family fortune all but depleted because a “new” entrepreneur, the strikingly familiar Angie (Green, of course) has a stranglehold on the local fishing industry. In fact, the ageless Angie — carefully assuming the identity of her own descendents, every 40 years or so — has spent the past two centuries reducing the Collins family to near-paupers in the community they founded.

The status quo heats up with the arrival of Victoria Winters (also Heathcote), who has answered an ad to become young David’s new nanny. Oddly, Victoria finds herself at ease in this dusty, dilapidated mansion, and almost immediately is visited by a drifting specter.

Elsewhere, one of Angie’s construction crews unearths a coffin ... and, just like that, Barnabas finds himself back above ground, ready to resume his role as protector of the Collins family honor. Dealing with the oddities of 1972, however, will take some time.

Sure, it’s a hoot to watch Depp’s chronologically misplaced Barnabas react with wonder at late 20th century trappings such as television, asphalt highways and rock star Alice Cooper (“the ugliest woman I’ve ever seen”). But a little of that bewilderment goes a long way, and the time would be much better spent with richer character development.

Miller’s Roger Collins is particularly ill-treated, his actions reduced to a few avaricious glances toward the concealed chamber that contains a family treasure. This loot allows Barnabas and Elizabeth — the only person with whom he initially trusts his actual identity — to restore Collinwood and set about reclaiming their industry from Angie’s scheming clutches. (Cue a cameo appearance by the eternal Christopher Lee, as a fishing captain.)

The storyline never knows what to do with Roger, and his eventual fate feels like a careless afterthought. And while the always watchable Moretz gets plenty of mileage as a sullen, sulky misfit, third-act details about Carolyn are similarly rushed.

Pfeiffer fares better, lending plenty of atmospheric brio as the resourceful Elizabeth, who shares Barnabas’ desire to undo Angelique once and for all. And Haley is a hoot as the submissive Renfield to Barnabas’ commanding vampire.

Speaking of cameos, yes, longtime fans will be pleased by a party sequence that includes brief appearances by David Selby (Quentin Collins, back in the day), Lara Parker (the original Angelique), Kathryn Leigh Scott (the original Josette and Maggie Evans Collins) and, most appropriately, Jonathan Frid (the original Barnabas). But don’t blink, or you’ll miss them.

Danny Elfman’s score is disappointing, too often undercut by shrewdly placed period rock and pop songs by the Moody Blues, Donovan, Curtis Mayfield, the Carpenters and — needless to say — Alice Cooper.

So, while individual elements of this Dark Shadows are engaging, clever and amusing, the story itself never quite catches fire: a classic case of the whole being less than the sum of its parts.

Barnabas deserved better.

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