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Review: 'Dark Shadows'

It's fun and games with the "un-dead" and Johnny Depp.

Anyone remember “camp’? No, not summer camp or camping out in Yellowstone: good old-fashioned, over-the-top, no-holds barred “camp” as in...well, as in Tim Burton’s latest assault on our visual senses, Dark Shadows.

The late Susan Sontag wrote in her essay “Notes on Camp” that the style’s trademarks were “artifice, frivolity, naive middle-class pretentiousness, and ‘shocking’ excess.” All the preceding and more can be applied in spades to Dark Shadows.

  • Dark Shadows is one of the movies playing this week at .

I have not seen a single episode of the famed (aka infamous) daytime TV soap opera that fueled the inspiration for this inglorious mess, and whether that counts as a plus or minus depends on your tolerance for such fare.  I came with a blank slate, mixed expectations after somewhat tepid reviews and box-office scores (c’mon, did anyone doubt The Avengers” would kill any and all competition for weeks to come?) and thus, was fitfully amused and intermittently restless. 

If “high camp” was what Burton had in mind, he achieved that but to the ultimate detriment of providing a satisfying movie-going experience.

Johnny Depp plays undead vampire Barnabas Collins whom we first see in his native Liverpool in 1762. At first glance, I thought I wandered into a viewing of another Depp/Burton outing, 2007’s Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Both films share a view of 'merry olde England' as a damp, foggy, threatening milieu and that is all fine and good given that both Barnabas and Sweeney are literally out for blood. 

Depp has had a fine career playing roles that are tailor-made for his innate but finely controlled sense of creepy realism, and if this trait at times threatens to overwhelm his acting abilities, it is always used in service to the character he is portraying on screen to often wonderful effect. 

That said, there are small pleasures to be had and the visuals are always up to Tim Burton’s fertile, ever-wondrous imagination. We hear Barnabas in voice-over describe the history of the Collins clan taking us to 1972 when he explodes out of his entombment to a world of rock, TV’s, cars and the complex machinations of his family tree in a picturesque Maine fishing village.   

It’s great to see Michelle Pfeiffer as the family matriarch, a role that suits her unique blend of glamour and just-beneath-the surface venom. Yes, there’s pretty women, past and present, some nifty CGI effects (what’s a movie today without them?) various witches, miscreants and ghosts, all hob-nobbing in the truly spectacular Collins mansion. 

Helena Bonham-Carter (Mrs. Burton) has great fun as a red-haired shrink with very unorthodox therapeutic goals. Jackie Earle Haley is his usual very good spooky self as the caretaker.

Johnny Depp is good even when he’s bad and you always sense he’s doing a role like this with a tongue-in-cheek, wink at himself and the audience. The actor has virtuoso fingers that he uses to great effect here as he did with artificial ones in Edward Scissorhands, perhaps the best realized of the Depp-Burton output.   

See Dark Shadows perhaps as an amusing nostalgia trip. To expect more is to invite disappointment.

Jeff Klayman is an award-winning playwright whose works have been produced in New York, Los Angeles and London. He also wrote the screenplay for the independent film Adios, Ernesto, directed by Mervyn Willis.

Diane Silva May 20, 2012 at 02:21 AM
I enjoyed Dark Shadows very much. I think Johnny Depp and Tim Burrton did a fine job. I think it was a fine tribute to the series with some great visual effects

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