‘Dark Shadows’ has perversely watchable quality

May 20, 2012
Johnny Depp, center, starts in “Dark Shadows.”

Oh what a mess is the theatrical "Dark Shadows." But what a fascinating - and occasionally fun -- mess it all is.

You need a compass to follow the film's tone, for it's all over the map. But, at least for this reviewer, there was some siren song the film possessed that called to me, inviting me to stick with it to the end. And, after all the dust and debris has settled, the film still has a perversely watchable quality in spite of its numerous flaws.

But let's back up a bit. I have never seen episode one of the cult favorite television show on which it's based. I am aware of its legacy, and equally aware that the show took on a much more mythical, melodramatic tone.

This has caused outrage from fans who have witnessed the ads for director Tim Burton's cinematic vision.  

And while the "Shadows" on the screen is not quite the tongue-in-cheek laugh riot (a la "The Brady Bunch" film) the trailers suggested, its humorous moments are welcomed and rather amusing amidst the darker shades of the story as it unfolds.

I have yet to really decide just who the audience would be for such a stitched-together beast, but I do admire the audacity that such a film was placed into production, much less put into peak film-going season.

The center of "Shadows" is Barnabas Collins (played in the film by Johnny Depp), a centuries-old vampire who returns to his family estate after being cursed. It hangs around him (and his now-distant relatives) like a noose.

In his human prime, Collins rejected the advances of a servant girl/secret witch, Angelique (played by a feisty Eva Green), who offs his family, his girlfriend, and sentences young Barnabas to life in a coffin as a vampire.

Flash forward to 1972. The estate in which his family once dwelled is now inhabited by matriarch Elizabeth (played by a much-welcomed Michelle Pfeiffer), her greedy brother Roger (played by Jonny Lee Miller), her moody teenage daughter Carolyn (played by Chloe Grace Moretz) and his Pugsley Addams-like 10-year-old son David (played by Gulliver McGrath). The mansion is also a home for Dr. Julia Hoffman (played by Burton's wife, Helena Bonham Carter), a live-in psychiatrist who is supposed to be assisting David in coping with his mother's mysterious death, groundskeeper Willie (seriously!) (played by Jackie Earle Haley), and Victoria, a mysterious young woman recently hired to serve as David's governess and who bears more than a passing resemblance to Barnabas's lost love, Josette.

Barnabas wants nothing more than to restore his family business to its former glory, but Angelique is still in the picture (and quite enticingly so, I might add), and she still harbors a crush on the recently exhumed CEO.

This may seem like a rather heavy dose of exposition, but the film was based on a five-day-a-week soap, so there was much to pack into the pic.

There are pieces that feel missing, and there are others that go on far too long (did Burton owe Alice Cooper a favor or something?). Throughout, though, things are tethered by its leads. Both Depp and Bonham Carter stick to their Burton-default modes (Depp creepily off-kilter, Carter sarcastically disaffected), but it works so well here, what's the point in complaining?

The real revelations are Green (losing none of her seductive qualities as Vesper Lynd in "Casino Royale") and Moretz (most notable as the pint-sized pistol in "Kick Ass").

Green is like a Tasmanian Devil of sexuality, whirling around in form-flattering attire while wreaking havoc on everything in her path. Moretz is a marginal player in this overstuffed soufflé, but when the teen is on the screen, she owns it.  

The film is not worthy of the level of ridicule leveled upon some of Burton's past miscalculations ("Planet of the Apes"), and will undoubtedly appeal to a marginal few.

But for those willing to stick with it despite -- or because of -- its erratic vision, there are quite a few treasures to be found lurking in these "Shadows."

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