“DARK SHADOWS” CASTS NO SPELLS OF ENCHANTMENT

by Jeff Schultz on May 25, 2012

Welcome home, Barnabas Collins. Daytime television’s first vampire lay dead for 40 years and would’ve stayed there longer if not for fans Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. Burton’s visuals and Depp’s portrayal of the accursed Barnabas astound, as usual, but their Dark Shadows lacks the bite of the original.

The Dark Shadows series fascinated viewers from 1966 to 1971 with its inexpensive production values that added mystery and a sense of foreboding. However, Burton avoids being spooky and instead gives us a lazy parody. His approach is like getting ready for a Halloween party: Pick out a costume, put on some makeup, prepare some hackneyed lines to recite, and you’re ready to bob for apples. Instead of playing “The Monster Mash,” Burton uses a bargain-bin CD of ’70s hits.

After a prologue wherein a spurned witch turns Barnabas Collins into a vampire, Dark Shadows jumps to 1972, when Victoria Winters comes to Collinsport, Maine as governess to David, who’s despondent from the strange death of his mother.

At Collinswood Manor, she endures a supper from hell as David’s aunt Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (the matriarch), his father Roger, and bratty teenage cousin Carolyn growl at each other with spite and malice. Any normal person would forfeit the job, but Victoria, a clairvoyant, feels oddly at home. But before the governess’s storyline has a chance to develop, the script hooks onto Barnabas, who is accidentally freed from his coffin by a construction team.

Each scene struggles to make a joke, but the punchlines seldom come. The occasional laughs happen when Barnabas seeks advice from Carolyn on how to woo Victoria, or when he socializes around a campfire with hippies who quote lines from Erich Segal’s Love Story, and then later devours those “nice, unshaven young people.” But the comedy fails to make up for the lack of purpose to the story. There are plenty of montages showing Barnabas revitalizing the family’s fishing company, but he does little to resolve the bigger problem of repairing his family’s damaged emotions.

Depp-Burton collaborations no longer thrill as they did when they started with Edward Scissorhands 20 years ago, but what’s more disappointing is the wasted talent of scriptwriter Seth Graham-Smith. Graham-Smith mastered horror-comedy with his best-selling novels Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and this could have been his film breakthrough. But whenever his script reaches someplace dark or interesting, it recoils into its comfort zone — a special effects showcase for Depp.

Maybe Graham-Smith will get his break with this summer’s adaptation of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which Burton co-produces. But Dark Shadows is this summer’s trick-or-treat bag. The wrappers are fancy, but the candy is stale.

****

Jeff Schultz is a reporter for The Chesterton Tribune in Northwest Indiana and former editor-in-chief of The Purdue Review. He’s also co-host of The Eclectic Blender on WVLP, 98.3 FM and www.wvlp.org.

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