Dark Shadows

Dark Shadows, the original TV soap opera, which ran from 1966 to 1971, was something of a unique phenomenon in its day.  That’s not to say that it was terribly original—vampires as romantic figures go back to at least Bram Stoker—but it was as an amalgam of  its inspirations, namely gothic horror, historical romance and soap operas that made it almost unique.  I can’t think of anything else with that recipe.  Part of this has to do with the show’s origin.  For its first year it was a conventional soap opera, and apparently not a very good one.  Its ratings were flagging and one day the producers decided, “Well, why not?” and they introduced the character of Barnabas Collins, played by Jonathan Frid, a 200 year old vampire come back to save and to plague his ancestors.  It didn’t take long for the geeks to find it and turn the show’s ratings around.

I was one of those geeks and to me the appeal of the show was twofold.  One, it was horror lite, more creepy than gory or outright scary.  And second was Jonathan Frid.  An accomplished stage actor, he made Barnabas into a complex and compelling character, capturing both his monstrous impulses and his familial loyalty.  This vampire is both a villain and a hero, and he appealed to my adolescent longing for some power over my life.  When he sent Elizabeth’s blackmailer packing, I was cheering and wishing I could do that to all the people who were tormenting me at the time.

In spite of my history with the show, my main problem with the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp movie is not that they took a campy tone with it—I love the show but I don’t consider it sacred—it is that Seth Grahame-Smith’s script is poorly paced and the plot doesn’t really build to a logical climax.  Characterization for anyone other than Barnabas, played by Depp, is non-existent.  Now to be fair there were 1225 episodes of the series, more than enough time for even hack soap opera writers to fully explore every detail of every character.  But in this movie they didn’t even try.  Every character gets a scene or two with Barnabas but they seem somewhat perfunctory and they are awkwardly placed.  At one point when the villain, Angelique, played by Eva Green, reappears I found myself thinking, “Oh yeah, the plot.”  It had been a long time since it was advanced.

It’s a pretty film, as all Tim Burton movies are, and Johnny Depp once again displays his comic chops, especially in the scenes where he’s interacting with a modern world that he doesn’t understand.  It is in general a wonderful cast with Michelle Pfeiffer as Elizabeth, Helena Bonham Carter as Dr. Julia Hoffman and Chloe Grace Moretz as Carolyn Stoddard.  Unfortunately this high powered talent is mostly left on the sidelines.

As I said I don’t have a problem with using a campy tone in this case, but I wish it had been applied more evenly.  The serious moments in the film do not blend well with the comedy.  When Barnabas is unearthed by some workmen, he kills them, unable to help himself.  Okay, he’d been imprisoned for 200 years.  You can’t really expect him to rein in his vampiric impulses in that situation.  But it’s later in the movie when he kills the hippies, that bothers me.  The joke is that he kills hippies and no one cares.  But the joke didn’t really work.  At least not for me.

And I guess the same could be said for the entire film.

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