The Deathly Dullness of 'Dark Shadows'

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Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, as you've more or less seen them before

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WB

Tim Burton. Johnny Depp. Helena Bonham Carter.

Horror. Comedy. Camp.

A remake of something you may recall from childhood.

It's hard to know what might be profitably said about Dark Shadows, the latest comingling of elements that have been commingled so frequently of late. Michelle Pfeiffer is tucked away in there somewhere, which is new. But if you are at all familiar with the recent Burton oeuvre, there's not a great deal I can tell you about the film that you could not probably surmise on your own.

Like most recent Burton films, 'Dark Shadows' is principally an exercise in style and a study of Johnny Depp's cheekbones.

Based on the camp-gothic soap opera of the same name, which ran from 1966 to 1971, Dark Shadows is silly in that trademarked self-serious Burton manner. As is customary, the movie looks ravishing, but the plot is underfed. And of course Johnny Depp gets to add one more exhibit to his personal menagerie of weirdoes.

Depp plays Barnabas Collins, an 18th-century Liverpudlian whose father brings him to New England to make their fortune. As he enters adolescence, Barnabas is callow enough to fool around with a household servant, Angelique (Eva Green), but not quite callow enough to tell her he loves her. It is to his considerable ill fortune that Angelique turns out to be a witch, who enchants Barnabas's true love into taking a long walk off a short cliff, and then turns him into a vampire, cursed to an eternal life alone with his eye shadow. She also arranges to have him sealed in a coffin and buried alive (or alive-ish).

Fast forward to Maine, 1972. A Beautiful Young Woman With A Dark Secret arrives at the old Collins estate to apply for a job as governess for a Troubled Young Boy Who Also Has A Dark Secret. The movie doesn't spend much time on either Dark Secret, though, so neither will I. Suffice to say that the Collins clan—run by matriarch Elizabeth (Pfeiffer), and including a live-in alcoholic psychologist (Bonham Carter)—has fallen on tough times, their once-thriving fishing empire having gone to the dogs.

Fortunately, Barnabas's coffin is dug up by construction workers, and shortly after slaughtering them in the friendliest way possible, he arrives back at the Collins manse, intending to restore the family to prosperity. (This is rather easily accomplished, given that he knows where invaluable works of art are hidden in the house.)

And then? I'd like to say that the plot loops and swerves in magnificently unexpected directions, but the truth is that it doesn't really go anywhere at all. Barnabas feuds with, and then has sex with, and then goes back to feuding with, Angelique, the witch from way back—who is also, it turns out, immortal and has become the Collinses main competitor in the fishing trade. There are gags about how strange the 1970s look to someone from the 1700s, and gags about how strange they still look to us. Alice Cooper shows up and croons a couple of songs. Trap doors and secret passages are navigated and re-navigated, backstories are unspooled, Barnabas cheerfully murders the occasional victim or six, and the whole thing ends with a big fire. (Daphne du Maurier isn't the only one who dreamt of Manderley....)

Like most recent Burton films, Dark Shadows is principally an exercise in style and a study of Johnny Depp's cheekbones. The actor is perfectly good here, and fans of his past collusions with Burton will find their rewards along the way. But there's a perfunctory vibe to the goings on, a weariness amid the weirdness. Characters come and go, but with the exception of Green, who glowers erotically, none are given much to do. The governess (played by young Aussie Bella Heathcote) is forgotten for long stretches, only to return at the end as a central participant in a woefully underdeveloped love story.

The tone, too, is a bit scattered, with jokes about oral sex and electroshock therapy and parental abandonment awkwardly tossed about. As the movie nears its conclusion, a few characters are off-handedly revealed to have new paranormal abilities, among them a werewolf who declares, "Let's not make a big deal about it." It's advice the filmmakers themselves may have taken too broadly.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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