There is no doubt that director Tim Burton has a vision and it's a vision well suited to the dark, the mysterious and the macabre. However, he also likes the ludicrous, the outlandish and the silly. His version of the old TV show DARK SHADOWS is an unfortunate blending of the two.
The dark part of his vision is on ample display here and at moments it is exquisite: the ghostly Josette floating down the hallway, her long hair flowing in a breeze behind her as night after night she reenacts the circumstances of her death. And it is precisely because Burton is so good at capturing that mood, that atmosphere, that his decision to make the movie a comedy is so disappointing.
DARK SHADOWS, of course, was a late 60's cultural phenomenon. It began as the first "gothic" soap opera and had, in the beginning, all the trappings of a typical gothic story: the young governess on her own, traveling to a lonely and mysterious mansion far away, a mansion that stands on a cliff by the sea, full of secrets and strange inhabitants. The show didn't really take hold, however, until the introduction of the vampire Barnabas, played by Canadian actor Jonathan Frid. Then, suddenly, it was an overnight success.
There was nothing intentionally "funny" about DARK SHADOWS. It was played perfectly straight; the height of melodrama. Of course, the extremes of melodrama, particularly "scary" melodrama, can often seem humorous to an audience. Add to that the fact that the show was "taped live" and because of the expensive and cumbersome process of tape editing in those days, was rarely edited. Therefore, if a gravestone wiggled here, if a prop sword fell off its holder on the wall there, if a fly buzzed around a character's nose, if a slammed door caused a whole set to shake, or an actor forgot his lines, the audience wasn't spared the moment.
The built in bloopers became part of the charm of the show but the only way to capture that sort of humor would have been, not to do a DARK SHADOWS movie, but instead, a movie about the making of DARK SHADOWS, a show that eventually embraced not just the idea of a vampire, but witches, the Frankenstein monster, werewolves, ghosts and time travel.
I was a huge fan at the time and like other fans, was excited by the prospect of a movie with self proclaimed fan Johnny Depp taking on the role of Barnabas. There was also the intriguing notion that a number of the original cast members including Jonathan Frid (Barnabas), Kathryn Leigh Scott (Josette, Maggie), Lara Parker (Angelique) and David Selby (Quentin) were all to make cameo appearances.
The opening of Burton's movie seems to be answering that yearning of long time lovers of the series for its characters to come to life once again. The atmosphere is delicious, the tone just right. It doesn't take long, however, for the note to turn sour. As soon as Barnabas pops out of his coffin and is confronted by a blazing McDonalds sign, you know director Burton is howling at a different moon.
There is also the conspicuous absence of the show's distinctive theme music, swelling up as it did over a scene of waves crashing on rocks along the shore. No, we are not going back to the Collinswood we knew. Instead, we are in the midst of a parody, or perhaps it would be accurate to say a "mockery" of the original show.
Moviegoers too young to remember the original show or never exposed to it will most likely regard the film as just another silly Johnny Depp movie where he plays still another bizarre and over the top character who, here, turns out be a fish out of water, a man (or in this case, vampire) out of time with most of the jokes of the "time travel to a different century" variety. Hence, a TV set must certainly be a box containing strange, miniature people or a car with headlights nothing less than a demon from hell.
Another major disappointment for fans of the series is the brief, almost non-existent cameo of the onetime stars of the series. Even knowing they're somewhere in the movie doesn't guarantee you'll spot them. They appear as guests arriving for a party, but nothing is made of their entrance, they have no lines and simply appear and disappear as any other extra in the production.
Yes, for those with no knowledge of the show, a laugh or two will be had, maybe they'll even walk out of the theatre thinking they got their money's worth. But DARK SHADOWS fans have waited a long time for a modern day film resurrecting their vampire hero. They're still waiting.
And out of a possible four, DARK SHADOWS gets one.
by Jonathan Mumm firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan Mumm has been reviewing movies since 1972. He is a long time member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and hosted the Mumm at the Movies movie review segment on News 10 for 15 years.