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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Dark Shadows

DARK SHADOWS (Three Stars)

U.S.: Tim Burton, 2012

The original TV “Dark Shadows” was a hell of a soap, a classic of ‘60s-’70s pop/trash culture. When you watch it today (if you lived through those years), you can almost hear a ghostly backdrop chorus of Johnson and Nixon speeches, Walter Cronkite reporting the Vietnam War news, and hit after hit by the Rolling Stones.

But, in the new Johnny Depp version, Depp and director Tim Burton treat Shadows more reverently than perhaps they should, almost like a classic, period.

They mount it gorgeously, load it up with top-of-the-line expensive talent, headed by Depp as the series’ classy camp vampire Barnabas Collins. And they fill the spaces around Barnabas with a lot of stunning star actresses and creepy or villainous supporting actors, all backed by a shrewdly selected ‘70s soundtrack laced with mainstream non-Stones hits and pop-camp like The Carpenters’ “Top of the World” and Barry White and The Moody Blues‘ “Nights in White Satin.“ (Karen Carpenteer’s creamy, ultra-mellow dulcier of a voice and Barry White’s virile purr and the crashing waves  of  “Nights in White Satin” all become terrifying by counterpoint.)

Most interestingly the filmmakers  take a lead character, Barnabas C., whom I remember as something of an epicene icon, and they let Depp (who has said that he interprets many roles with a gay slant) make Barnabas so unabashedly heterosexual with his lady loves — Eva Green in Lara Parker’s old role of witch/bitch Angelique Bouchard and Bella Heathcote as both eternal 18th century love Josette Duprez and ’70s governess Victoria Winters — that they either die or kill for love of him.

There’s also no shortage of divas and ingenues at Collins Manor: Michelle Pfeiffer, in a striking return, plays noir goddess Joan Bennett‘s old role of matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, that unquiet Brit Helena Bonham Carter takes Grayson Hall‘s part of untraditional psychotherapist Dr. Julia Hoffman and Chloe Grace Moretz does Elizabth’s languid smarty-pants teenage daughter Carolyn Stoddard.

As for the males in The Shadows, they include Jonny Lee Miller, unlikably playing the the spineless Roger Collins, Elizabeth’s brother and father of the eerily self-possessed tyke David (Gully McGrath), plus Jackie Earle Haley as the spooky-looking hired hand Willie Loomis, who gives a shot of needed anti-glamour to one of the more glamorous-looking vampire movies ever. And last but not least, Alice Cooper, who plays ghoulish front man at the Collins’s not-quite-Ambersons ball.

The story, cannily but not too compellingly supplied by screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (author of “Zombies and Pride and Prejudice“), is set in 1972, the year Nixon was resoundingly elected and about the time of the original TV show (which ran from 1966 to 1971). The show begins with a high-melodramatic prelude in which the Collins family travels to the New World, starts up the the city of Collinsport and the initially lucrative Collins fishery, and the dashing but peculiar Barnabas wins the hearts of both angelic Josette and devilish Angelique (who preps for her war on Barnabas by killing his parents).

It all ends (in the beginning) in the deep, dark, dreadful Gothic night, with Barnabas and Josette perched at the top of a high Gothic cliff, above crashing Gothic waves — he falls, she falls, he can’t save her –and evil Angelique gets him vampirized and buried in a chained box.

200 years later, Barnabas is dug up and awakened by a group of hapless workmen who are immediately bitten and killed. “I’m thirsty,” the well-mannered Barnabas explains, and returns to Collins manor (it‘s gone to seed and so has the fishery), where he’s greeted by Loomis and Elizabeth, and the movie plunges into the horror-as-soap-opera shtick we expect, the relentless demonic seductions of Angelique (Title available on request), and eventually more mad love and cliffs.

Critically, there’s been somewhat of a split decision on Burton’s Dark Shadows, and I guess I fall in the middle — a sometimes enthusiastic middle. The movie is dry and droll and very, very pretty, but not particularly funny, surprising or inventive, except in the ways it collides Barnabas with the ‘70s. (He thinks TV is a sorcerer‘s box filled with little sorceresses singers, and he also thinks Alice Cooper is the ugliest women he’s ever seen).

Conversely, the things that are good about Dark Shadows are things that we usually expect to go right in a Burton movie (though that doesn’t make them any less good): all those elegantly horrific and wittily lush and magnificently playful Tim Burton visuals, which summon up the world of exaggerated wonders we get from movies when we’re young.

And there’s the enticingly moviestar-ish cast. The unsmiling Depp crosses a bit of Jonathan Frid (the first immortal Barnabas, recently deceased), with Vincent Price’s tartness and Tyrone Power’s sweetness of spirit, while Pfeiffer holds the screen grade-dame-ishly, and, as always, niftily blonde-ishly. (Christopher Lee, Price’s sort of rival is here in the flesh, in a cameo. Carter chews up the film ferociously, and Moretz is is archly teenagery. The film’s great prize though, is Eva Green, who makes Angelique such a luscious strumpet and monster that she magnetizes you, drives you crazy. If there’s a revelation in Dark Shadows, it’s Green, who knocked us out opposite Daniel Craig’s Bond in Casino Royale. and has been knocking us down or out  again, by increments, ever since.

As a high-schooler, I once acted in the same theater group, the Belfry Players of Williams Bay, Wisconsin, as the TV “Dark Shadows”’ Lara Parker (whose real name was Lamar Parker), though not in the same plays. I was comic relief as the idiotic Private Rooney in “Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole,” and Lamar performed brilliantly as the bereaved wife in “All the Way Home.” She was a very good serious actress, and she deserved a more serious career — or at least better chances than Race With the Devil. I wonder how she feels when she sees this movie and Eva Green, and gets the evidence that she had the really killer part in “Dark Shadows.”  By the way, I always though “Lamar Parker” was a much better, more memorable name than “Lara Parker.”

There’s a lot of potential in the new Depp-Burton film’s conjunction of actors, and also its mixture of horror and ‘70s pop, and sometimes Dark Shadows reaches it. There‘s almost everything Green does, in the 18th century or now (I mean, 2012). There’s an amusing scene where Barnabas hunkers down with a bunch of blissed-out hippies at a mellow night gathering, and then develops another thirst — one of the few moments when the movie lets in the reality of the Vietnam era, which it should probably do more often. There’s lot of other stuff, Burton specialties. Maybe Burton isn’t reaching his potential here, but how many of us do?

But hey, the movie entertains us, and it does so, in at least a somewhat adult way, even if it mostly tries to evoke a passion of Johnny Depp’s and Tim Burton’s youthful years. That’s not the top of the world, and it’s not even close, but it’s something. Thirsty?

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