Dark Shadows movie review: Johnny Depp is off-colour in this batty vampire tale

A pale shadow of himself: Usually so charismatic, Johnny Depp is off-colour in this batty vampire tale Dark Shadows



08:22 GMT, 11 May 2012


Verdict: Good idea goes for a Burton

Heaven knows what TV show they’ll convert to cinema next. On this evidence, Crossroads: The Movie can not be far away.

Dark Shadows was a long-running soap on American daytime TV between 1966 and 1971. It had a super-serious tone, wobbly sets and embarrassingly incompetent special effects.

Its ghostly, Gothic overtones did, however, foreshadow the much later arrival of Buffy, Angel and a dozen vampiric knock-offs.

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Stake for dinner Johnny Depp is complacent and a lifeless hole in his role as a vampire in Dark Shadows

Stake for dinner Johnny Depp is complacent and a lifeless hole in his role as a vampire in Dark Shadows

Two previous attempts have been made to spin off feature films from the series: House Of Dark Shadows, an extremely minor hit in 1970, and Night Of Dark Shadows, a box-office fiasco in 1971.

Now Tim Burton has made an expensive, special-effects-strewn homage to the old series, building up the comic elements and turning it into a star vehicle for Johnny Depp. Burton returns to the tone — American Gothic meets black humour — that gave him a hit in Beetlejuice.

So how could it possibly fail Read on to discover the horrifying truth.

The pre-titles sequence begins in the late 18th century, as handsome socialite Barnabas Collins (Depp) has an affair with a housemaid called Angelique (Eva Green). Class divisions being what they are, he spurns her in favour of a beautiful young virgin (Bella Heathcote).

The housemaid turns out to be not just a woman scorned but a vengeful witch, making Barnabas’s inamorata throw herself off a cliff and sentencing him to endless suffering as a vampire. As if that’s not enough, she also has him buried alive.

Cue titles and a jump forward to 1972. A delicate young woman who’s the spitting image of Barnabas’s lost love (Heathcote again) is travelling to take a job at Collins’s old house, now owned by distant descendants.

These are Michelle Pfeiffer as the matriarch, Jonny Lee Miller as her untrustworthy brother, Chloe Grace Moretz as Pfeiffer’s sulky daughter, and Gully McGrath as a boy who sees dead people.

Co-stars: Tim Burton's long-term partner, actress Helena Bonham Carter, and Johnny Lee Miller both appear in the film

Co-stars: Tim Burton's long-term partner, actress Helena Bonham Carter, and Johnny Lee Miller both appear in the film

But you didn’t think Johnny Depp was only going to be in the pre-titles sequence, did you Disinterred by a gang of construction workers, Barnabas relieves his bicentennial thirst by slaughtering all of them. Then he wanders to his home town and is appalled by Seventies culture.

He revisits his old house, turns the spooky old butler (Jackie Earle Haley) into his personal Igor, and does his best to avoid the attentions of the family’s perpetually drunk, live-in child psychiatrist (Helena Bonham Carter, mistakenly believing that comedy acting requires nothing more than a bright orange wig).

Despite Barnabas’s belief that ‘family is the only wealth’, he sets about reviving the financial fortune of his descendants.

Naturally, his eye is caught by the blue-eyed governess who so closely resembles his former love. And he is wary of the beautiful business- woman Angie (Green again) who looks awfully like Angelique, the witch he rubbed up the wrong way two centuries ago.

This may sound like a promising set-up, and indeed it is. Designer Rick Heinrichs and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel make the Gothic mansion wonderfully daunting and impressive.

With his imposing old house and perilous cliff-tops, Burton clearly hopes to invoke the spirit of Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Unfortunately, the film turns out to bear rather more of a resemblance to Death Becomes Her, a Robert Zemeckis clunker from 1992.

One problem is that the darkness works against the comedy. The film is off-puttingly heartless in its attitude to the working men and hippies whom Barnabas so casually dispatches.

There’s no one to root for. The movie starts out as if the young governess will be the heroine, but forgets her as soon as Barnabas wakes from the dead.

There’s no satisfactory explanation of her relationship to the 18th century, and her love affair with Barnabas must be somewhere on the cutting-room floor.

As the central love story’s a write-off, there’s nothing at stake beyond the wealth of the family, and that’s never enough. Green does her best to salvage the movie. Indeed, she is so much sexier than the official heroine that I kept hoping for a truly dark, subversive twist. But Cabin In The Woods, this is not.

Depp amuses himself by delivering one-liners in a clipped English accent, as unimpressed by tarmac (‘curious terrain’) as he is by modern manners (‘How, pray, does one throw a “happening”’).

However, too many of the culture-clash gags fall flat, and he doesn’t develop. His fish-out-of-water vampire is nowhere near as entertaining as George Hamilton was in the 1979 hit Love At First Bite.

Normally an energetic, charismatic actor, Depp is an inert, complacent and ultimately lifeless hole at the centre of the movie.

The film around him feels even emptier because the woefully disorganised screenplay doesn’t give the talented actors nearly enough to do.

When one turns into a werewolf, it feels like authorial desperation, not a natural outcome of the plot.

Pfeiffer is wasted, and Jonny Lee Miller looks terribly depressed, as though in mourning for his career.

Tim Burton is a likeable chap who has directed some of my favourite films — notably Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood — but he’s often guilty of allowing design precedence over story-telling.

In none of his movies is this truer than Dark Shadows.

Now watch the trailer