Lights Out for 'Dark Shadows'

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Tim Burton's version of the camp soap opera classic—out today on video—is one remake too many.

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Warner Bros.

It's been such a remarkable year for Joseph Gordon-Levitt—with the excellent Looper now in theaters, Premium Rush and The Dark Knight Rises still visible in the rearview mirror, and his performance as Robert Todd Lincoln fast approaching—that it's easy to forget his humble beginnings as an actor. No, no, not 3rd Rock: He was already a seasoned TV veteran by then. The amiable Shakespearian teen rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You, perhaps? Or his recurring role as "George" on Roseanne? We're getting closer. But Gordon-Levitt's first big break was his casting, at the tender age of ten, as David Collins in an ill-fated 1991 television reboot of Dark Shadows, which was killed, and largely forgotten, after just one season.

Last spring, the beloved 1960s camp-horror soap opera was again resurrected, this time as a feature film by Tim Burton. Whether this iteration—available on DVD today—will be forgotten as quickly as the last, I can't say. But I wouldn't count out the possibility.

The movie is Burton's eighth collaboration with star Johnny Depp (who plays newly de-coffinated vampire Barnabas Collins), and is the least satisfying to date by some margin—neither witty enough to play as satire nor faithful enough to qualify as homage. As I wrote when the film was released in theaters,

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 [Eva Green], 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.

You can read the full review here. Or, if you prefer, have a look at the original show, which ran from 1966 to 1971, and holds up better than one might expect. (Completists can order a boxed set of all 1,225 episodes from Amazon; for the rest of us, there are plentiful opportunities to dabble on YouTube and elsewhere.) Did you know that the actress, Alexandra Isles, who played the show's initial protagonist, Victoria Winters, later became a key witness in the attempted-murder trial of Claus von Bulow? (A former lover of von Bulow's, she's played by Julie Haggerty in Barbet Schroeder's terrific Reversal of Fortune.) Did you know that the show was not originally intended to have any supernatural elements at all? (Ghosts didn't appear until some six months in, and Barnabas himself didn't show up until episode 209.) Is it entirely obvious that I find trivia about the show more interesting than Burton's remake? The original title of the program was to be Shadows on the Wall—which, come to think of it, would have suited Burton's effort admirably.

Next week: The muculent mess of Prometheus.

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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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