Sluggish Story Plagues ‘Dark Shadows’

Back in 1966 an innovative soap opera invaded the daytime airwaves that previously had been reserved for programs dealing with love and loss, fidelity and infidelity, and sex and more sex. The new show was titled “Dark Shadows,” and it was the brainchild of Dan Curtis, who directed “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance,” which I consider two of the best miniseries in the history of television.

Six months after its opening show, “Dark Shadows” began to feature ghosts in the plot, and then after being on the air for a year, it added a vampire named Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid). The show’s creators continued to enhance its uniqueness by adding werewolves and other supernatural elements until it became the first horror soap opera in the history of television.

Of course it was only a matter of time until a full-length feature film based upon the series hit the silver screen, and only one actor was inarguably born to play the role of Barnabas Collins — the brilliant and ubiquitous Johnny Depp. And although Depp is characteristically flawless in his portrayal of the 200-hundred-year-old vampire, the film proved to be somewhat of a disappointment because the story really dragged in places.

As the movie begins in the middle 1700s, the youthful Barnabas is leaving Liverpool, England, for Collinsport, Maine, where his parents hope to put behind them forever a strange family curse. Within 20 years, Barnabas becomes the master of the palatial Collinswood Manor, and he establishes himself as quite the ladies’ man, which, of course, gets him into deep trouble.

Two women — Josette DuPres (Bella Heathcote) and Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) — are vying for the affection of Barnabas, and when he ultimately chooses Josette, it both breaks Angelique’s heart and infuriates her. Unfortunately for Barnabas, Angelique happens to be an accomplished witch, and she promptly has Josette kill herself, and then turns Barnanas into a vampire before burying him alive.

Flash ahead 200 years to 1972, when some construction workers unearth Barnabas’ casket, setting him free to return home at last. But his homecoming is not a happy one because his house is in shambles, and it is inhabited by a strange cast of characters including the following: Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), the family matriarch; her teenaged daughter, Carolyn Stoddard; Elizabeth’s brother, Roger Collins (Johnny Lee Miller); his 10-year-old son, David (Gulliver McGrath); Victoria Winters (Beth Heathcote), David’s new nanny; and Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bobham Carter),  the house physician.

Barnabas hopes to restore his family to its former prominence, but Angelique still holds a grudge against him, and she wants no part of his finding happiness unless it’s with her. Let the chaos begin.

The film derives much of its humor from the fact that Barnabas is completely out of place in 1972 and suffering from the Rip Van Winkle syndrome. At one point he sees Karen Carpenter performing on television, and his subsequent reaction is very funny. In the film’s production notes, Depp explained the thinking behind this segment.

“It sparked a whole series of ideas. The thought of this very elegant man of the 1700s, having been cursed and locked away for 200 years, coming back to 1972 – maybe the worst time, aesthetically, in human existence, where people accepted everything from ugly little troll dolls to macramé jewelry and resin grapes to lava lamps. We thought what a great way to incorporate this vampire being the eyes that we never had back then, the eyes that can see the absurdity in those things.”

In addition to Barnabas, two other characters — Elizabeth and Angelique — are vital to the plot. The family is very important to Elizabeth, and in the production notes Pfeiffer offered an interesting comment about her character.

“Keeping up appearances is very important to her. She’s very proud and protective of the Collins name despite the fact that they have fallen on hard times. They are also rather weird, but I don’t think any of them realizes just how weird they are.”

Also in the production notes, Green analyzed Angelique.

“Everything is magnified with her — her pain, her desire, her vengeance. It’s such an outrageous character, but I don’t see her as necessarily evil. Her heart was broken, and when Barnabas re-emerges, it’s overwhelming for Angelique. She’s at the height of her power and yet she’s very vulnerable because Barnabas is her weak point. She’s convinced he loves her as much as she loves him, but he won’t admit it. She wants to own him, to possess every bit of him.”

“Dark Shadows” boasts some fine performances from Depp, Pfeiffer, and Green, and some of the special effects, especially near the film’s end, are outstanding. The costumes also are wonderful, and the sets are magnificent.

But despite all these positive elements, the film earns a disappointing score of six because the plot was incredibly tedious in places. In fact, I actually dozed off several times, and that obviously is not a good endorsement. But at least no one could see me sleeping because I was doing it in the theater’s dark shadows.

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