By Richard von Busack
It didn’t live fast, but Dark Shadows (Dark Shadows tickets and showtimes here) leaves a beautiful corpse. The clown-white makeup on the haunted Collins family alone gives this pulseless reboot the look of something the mortician pumped up and propped up. Seth Grahame-Smith’s wretched script bypasses everything that gave the Hawthorne-ish soap opera style.
The chained up coffin of the early-American vampire Barnabas (Johnny Depp) is opened by a crew of workmen. He returns to his native estate Collinwood on the storm-wracked coast of New England. Soon he re-encounters the woman who betrayed him, the still-living witch Angelique (Eve Green).
Dark Shadows is actually about a group of depressed misfits who need parental order. Posing as “Barnabas Collins III”, the vamp life-coaches his feuding family. A well-preserved Michelle Pfeiffer takes the Joan Bennett role as Elizabeth; hard-drinking shrink Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham-Carter) tends to poor neglected young David (Gulliver McGrath). And there’s the Lolita-like 15 year old niece: she’s the very good Chloe Grace Moretz, whose sensible plan to steal this formless movie keeps getting thwarted by Burton.
Dark Shadows goes unusually dirty, with Depp and Green’s recreation of the Jeff Goldblum/Emma Thompson room-wrecking sex scene in The Tall Guy. To enjoy this you have to presume 1972 as the most hilarious time ever. The fish out of water keeps gasping, as the bad improv comedy-style routines go on: “How would a guy from the 1790s respond to TV? What if Scooby Doo was on that TV?” The actresses fan their whiskbroom-sized false eyelashes. Danny Elfman unloads Dumpster of oldies, primarily sugar-frosted cheese by The Carpenters.
Heavy exposition stresses how the characters feel for each other, more than any acting can do; the traffic direction is at an all time low for Burton. Burton may not seem to have directed the actors as such, but he’s certainly filling his function as cinema’s most famous set decorator. He is Burton, so there are a couple of arresting visual ideas: the idea that Angelique’s glamour is only as thick as an eggshell, for instance.
Set pieces include a fancy dress ball at Colliswood. Wastrel Roger, played by Jonny Lee Miller, works that double-entendre about “ball” for a few minutes. The crowd goes crazy: they never heard that one before…
Dark Shadows‘ true highlight is Alice Cooper, given a digital skin-peel, performing”The Ballad of Dwight Fry.” Praise to Cooper for going legitimately scary, in a way the rest of this grave-robbing film can’t match. Dark Shadows renovates the old tv series in the same way the evil Delia renovated the house in Beetlejuice: with a lot of chic, flamboyant bad taste. The silent cameo by the real Barnabas, the late Jonathan Frid, says it all: sometimes the disdain is so thick you can’t find the words.