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‘Dark Shadows’ Review

Dark Shadows
Warner Bros.

I love watching Johnny Depp make silly faces. Heck, I can watch that all day!

That’s something I used to think. Now I know that I can watch it for. . .about forty minutes. For an hour and fifty-three, which is the running time of Tim Burton’s ‘Dark Shadows,’ I start to get real uncomfortable.

Individual sequences within this campy-but-only-at-times-silly gothic horror gabfest are absolutely tremendous. The sets, costumes, makeup and use of short lenses mixed with preening, furniture-chomping performances have all the raw ingredients of a cult classic. Why, then, is ‘Dark Shadows’ such a bore? I think this is a case of something being a little TOO close to its source material – it has the pacing and dramatic structure of a dunder-headed daytime soap.

After a vexingly rushed prologue that sticks Depp’s vampire Barnabas Collins in the ground for two centuries we shift – to the melancholy tune of “Nights in White Satin” – to the early 1970s. The colors blast on the screen, everyone has wide-eyes and perfect clothing and the New England town of Collinwood is art directed to the finest detail.

We’ll soon meet the family – Michelle Pfeiffer, the aging but still glamorous matriarch, Jonny Lee Miller her turtleneck, pipe-smoking husband. Chloe Grace Moretz is the sexual-but-not-coquettish 15-year-old daughter and some dopey boy is the dopey boy. Also there’s Jackie Earle Haley as the creepy drunkard caretaker and Helena Bonham Carter as the hard drinking live-in psychiatrist.

Sparks are meant to fly when out-of-time Barnabas returns and, while there are a number of entertaining fish-out-of-water gags, what mostly happens is a lot of stagey talking. There are some quality zings, yes, and Depp keeps making grandiloquent gestures with his long fingers, but eventually even his silly use of complicated syntax grows tiresome.

While Barnabas is trying to fit in (and find blood to drink) he runs afoul of Eva Green, the witch who cursed him hundreds of years ago, now running the rival fish cannery (don’t ask.) In her Edgar Winter-esque hair, candy apple lipstick, high-heel boots, miniscule waist, enormous bosom and exaggerated flat American accent she fierces up the screen like the next champion on ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race.’ It’s a hilarious performance – something like a Barbie-ized Joan Cusack – and her eventual transmogrification to a shattered piece of porcelain (a very cool special effect) would have been touching if there were ever a moment to care about any of these characters.

It’s funny, because I’ve spent my whole life familiarizing myself with any “intellectual property” with enough of a cult following to hold its own conventions, yet I never got around to ‘Dark Shadows.’ One guy who was obsessed was a young Johnny Depp. It was his childhood fantasy to be Barnabas Collins. So when you are a Hollywood superstar who generates billions of dollars, this is the type of present you get – hundreds of people work for a year to let you act out long fermenting dream, to the delight of, probably, nobody.

My wife works in design, so the TV ads for ‘Dark Shadows’ have had her salivating for weeks. After tonight’s screening, as the packed house muttered near-unanimous disapproval, she was one of the few who were aglow. She went on and on about the set design, costuming, use of color and “absolutely fantastic eyewear.” When I asked her what she thought about the story she admitted she wasn’t giving that any attention. “It was much more interesting to look at than to listen to.”
Rating Meter 4

Jordan Hoffman was the movies editor at Hearst Digital’s UGO for four years and currently contributes to SlashFilm, MTV’s NextMovie and StarTrek.com. He’s made two marginally successful independent movies, is a member of the New York Film Critics Online and was named IFC’s Ultimate Film Fanatic of the NorthEast in 2004. Follow him on Twitter at @JHoffman6.

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