By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
This may offend nostalgic readers, but the 1960s soap opera Dark Shadows wasn't great or even good television. Like other schoolchildren, I rushed home daily to follow the haunted saga of Barnabas Collins, only because Jonathan Frid was gracing as many magazine covers as Bobby Sherman, so he was pop culture cool.
Senseless hysteria for sensitive vampires didn't begin with Robert Pattinson, you know.
What I recall about Dark Shadows is its clumsy execution; all dingy grays with poorly aimed cameras and flubbed lines, cheap supernatural effects and twists taking until Fridays to turn. I've tried watching episodes lately, mostly fast-forwarding to Frid, and mourning those hours after school when I should have been outside playing.
In that respect, Tim Burton has nailed Dark Shadows with his reimagined version, a movie much more technically accomplished than its source yet equally dull. Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith settle into the talky, pedestrian rhythms of the TV show, with subplots amounting to not much, no matter how archly they're presented.
Forget the previews painting Dark Shadows as an Austin Powers-style comedy, with Barnabas (Johnny Depp) awakening in 1972 after two centuries in a coffin. Those time-clash gags are few, far between and mostly lame. The neck biting is more graphic than '60s censors allowed, but that isn't difficult. The biggest shock is a distinct lack of fun, with Burton handling this material more reverently than it deserves.
Rather than Beetlejuice craziness, Burton reverts to a Sleepy Hollow atmosphere, with gothic grandeur and pallid grays draining life from the performances. He can't seem to decide whether to play it straight or spoof, and his movie winds up somewhere disappointing in between. A few jokes hit their marks but comedy momentum isn't sustained, and special effects are of the Haunted Mansion variety.
As with Frid in the TV version, tolerance for Dark Shadows largely depends upon the viewer's affection for Depp. We've seen this morosely mannered performance before, without the pointy bicuspids and usually in a Burton film. They may be great friends with similarly morbid tastes, but after eight collaborations, it's time for a long trial separation.
The rest of the cast is odd window dressing except Chloe Grace Moretz as Barnabas' petulant teenage descendant Carolyn Stoddard. Moretz has the right idea, or at least it was given to her character alone by the script. Carolyn sees this supernatural situation as an intrusion, rebelling with tart asides and daring glares. Watching her you see the subversive comedy that Dark Shadows might have been.
By the time Alice Cooper arrives to perform at a Collins family soiree, it's obvious that Burton and Grahame-Smith are stumped to wrap up the proceedings. Depp's eerie charisma can only carry a movie so far. Dark Shadows manages in two hours what the TV show took six years to do: become irrelevant and remembered only for how sloppy it was.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365.