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Dark Shadows

Originally published in The California Aggie

In the grand scheme of cinematic vampires, Barnabas Collins is, honestly, kind of a square.

He’s too gentlemanly to be scary, like Nosferatu or Dracula. His wardrobe is perpetually 200 years out of date, meaning he could never secretly live amongst the locals à la Edward Cullen. And with his stiff posture and raccoon eyes, his sex appeal is no match for Tom Cruise’s Lestat de Lioncourt (although no less than four women succumb to Barnabas’ advances throughout the course of the movie, so clearly I know nothing about vampire hotness).

So, how do you turn a polite, unfashionable, decidedly unsexy vampire into the hero of a film based on an equally lame ’60s TV show?

Put him in a beanbag chair and have him wax poetic about ’70s love songs, naturally.

This stranger-in-a-strange-land premise is the formula that director Tim Burton and his eight-time collaborator/muse/cash cow/BFF Johnny Depp follow in the black comedy Dark Shadows, and it works — to an extent. There’s still that pesky thing called “plot,” and the joy of seeing an 18th century vampire thrown into the groovy ’70s doesn’t quite save the film’s snoozer of a story.

It’s 1972 when Barnabas (Depp) is discovered buried alive, trapped in a coffin since 1776. A playboy of sorts, heir to a Maine fishing empire, Barnabas makes the mistake of admitting to girlfriend-of-the-month Angelique (a delightfully campy Eva Green) that he doesn’t love her, proving once and for all that hell indeed hath no fury like a woman scorned. It turns out she’s a witch, and after sending his true love Josette to her death, she curses poor Barnabas to vampire-dom and locks him in that dreaded box.

But things begin to look up for Barnabas when he is finally released and, above ground for the first time in nearly 200 years, he goes in search of his former home, the grand, gothic Collinwood Manor. Inhabiting the drafty house (which looks, on the inside, suspiciously like Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion) are Barnabas’ descendants, a ragtag group of misfits including sweet nanny Victoria (Bella Heathcote), an alcoholic groundskeeper (Jackie Earle Haley), psychedelic psychiatrist Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter, who else), matriarch Elizabeth Collins (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her daughter Carolyn (Chloe Moretz).

It’s Barnabas’ interactions with the Collinwood residents and landmarks of ’70s culture (macrame and lava lamps, anyone?) where the film really shines, mainly due to Depp’s spot-on comedic timing and stately but lovable portrayal of the hopelessly out-of-place Barnabas. Never has it been more abundantly clear that Depp is, despite his penchant for the bizarre, first and foremost a comedian, and most of the film’s laughs belong to him. A scene in which he asks a group of hippies for love advice is particularly amusing.

But back to the plot, and where the film falls into a trap that I suspect is inevitable for many TV-to-film adaptations. How do you make a fresh two-hour movie out of a TV show that has already created new drama for its characters throughout — in the case of “Dark Shadows,” more than 1,000 episodes?

Apparently, you manufacture a conflict that feels neither fresh nor new. Angelique, a member of the undead herself and still hanging around Barnabas’ old stomping grounds, is now the head of her own fishing company that has dwarfed the Collins family’s. Of course, this infuriates Barnabas, and he sets off to restore the Collins name and destroy Angelique. Shenanigans ensue. After being introduced to the wickedly wonderful Barnabas and Co., it’s pretty much a letdown.

It’s a shame, because Burton creates an appropriately creepy yet silly first half that allows the viewer to glimpse what an inspired film this could have been, if only it hadn’t been saddled with such a boring plot. Having compelling characters is one thing; having them do compelling things is quite another. Only the former is accomplished.

Still, I expect Dark Shadows’ broad comedy and Depp’s star power to make the film a hit at the box office, and I’m OK with that. The rather unsatisfying conclusion, which Burton has said is a nod to the never-ending nature of soap operas, leaves the possibility of a sequel open. Perhaps someday we’ll get to see Barnabas discover the magic of Cabbage Patch dolls and acid-washed jeans. That’s something I’d pay to see.

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