(2012) Gothic Comedy (Warner Brothers) Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jackie Earle Haley, Jonny Lee Miller, Helena Bonham Carter, Bella Heathcote, Christopher Lee, Gulliver McGrath, Ray Shirley, Alice Cooper. Directed by Tim Burton
Sometimes without meaning to we cause harm to people. We never know exactly who we’ve created an enemy of, or what they’re capable of doing though even if we’re innocent of any real wrongdoing.
Barnabas Collins (Depp) was living the high life, 18th century style. His family owns a wildly successful fishing fleet in Maine; the town built around their enterprise, Collinsport, is thriving; they’ve built an extravagant mansion overlooking the town and the Atlantic that would be the equivalent of a castle. And Barnabas is deeply in love with Josette duPres (Heathcote).
This is bad news to Angelique Bouchard (Green). She and the handsome Barnabas had a fling which meant much more to her than it did to him. She was a maid, he the master of the house; a relationship between them would not be appropriate if it were even possible. Scorned, Angelique resolves to get even and since she happens to be a rather powerful witch, that’s even worse news for Josette. Angelique casts a spell on her, causing her to throw herself off a cliff into the sea despite Barnabas’ desperate attempts to save her. Heartbroken, he throws himself off the same cliff but fails to die. You see, he’s been cursed as well – to become a vampire, a hideous creature of the night.
The implacable Angelique lets the good citizens of Collinsport know they have a monster in their midst and Barnabas is dragged out into a remote field where he is chained up and buried alive. There he remains, deep in the ground in the woods far outside of town.
That is, until he is dug up some 200 years later by contractor. It is now 1972 and two centuries without a meal can make one…peckish as the workers find out to their dismay. He longs to find his estate and get his bearings. When he gets there, he is overjoyed to find that the family still survives (although it’s never explained quite how, since he apparently was the only son – perhaps some other Collins’ emigrated from England to take over the family business). However, they are definitely down at heel. Their fishing business is a shadow of its former self. The mansion is crumbling and what was once a vast army of servants is down to two – the elderly Mrs. Johnson (Shirley) and the booze-addled Willie Loomis (Haley) who does most of the heavy lifting.
The family is down to four members – matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Pfeiffer), widowed mother of rebellious teen Carolyn (Moretz). Her brother Roger Collins (Miller) who is also a widower and a womanizer, not to mention somewhat useless. The last is his son David (McGrath) who talks to and sees his dead mother. This tendency to dwell on his late mother has alarmed Elizabeth who has opened her penurious pursestrings and hired Julia Hoffman (Carter), a psychiatrist who seems more interested in drinking and smoking than therapy and Victoria Winters (Heathcote), a governess who bears a remarkable resemblance to Josette.
They welcome Barnabas with mostly open arms although Elizabeth alone is aware that Barnabas is that Barnabas rather than a distant English relation (the cover story they use for Barnabas’ unusual and sudden appearance). Elizabeth wants to regain the family name and glory and she knows that his keen business acumen can only help (it doesn’t hurt that as a vampire he can use his mind to control others to do his will). However, they have a long ways to go to catch up with Angel Bay, the corporate entity that has taken over the fishing business in Collinsport. However, Barnabas is dismayed to find out that at the head of Angel Bay is an old nemesis (emphasis on the old) – Angelique (going by Angie these days) who hasn’t aged a day. Like as not, their old quarrel is going to resurface and there’s going to be fall-out and only one of them will be left standing.
On the surface this seems like a perfect fit – Burton, one of the quirkiest directors in Hollywood but one who knows how to tell a good story and the iconic gothic soap opera from the 60s and 70s. He has chosen to go the cheeseball route, not just by setting the movie (mostly) in the 70s but by changing its original dark, gothic tone to one that is more comedic. In all honesty it doesn’t work as well as I would have hoped.
It’s not Depp’s fault. He takes the late Jonathan Frid’s (who played Barnabas in the series) mannered, courtly vampire and takes that to the extreme, playing up the fish out of water angle a great deal more. In the original, Barnabas seemed to adjust much more quickly and readily to his new time. Frid was a sex symbol in his time albeit not to the same degree Depp is now. Depp’s Barnabas seems sexier more by accident than by artifice; indeed, the original Barnabas was far more evil and dangerous than Depp who is almost apologetic when he feeds. In fact, Frid seems to revel in his undead status more than Depp who would just as soon be rid of his curse.
The supporting roles vary wildly. Pfeiffer is always magnificent and although she seems a bit young to play the matron, she pulls it off here well. Green is the most impressive; with her carefree grin, she sees to be having the most fun of everybody (she does get to have a hot and somewhat violent sex scene with Depp so I suppose she comes by her smile honestly) and it translates into making her character more attractive to audiences. She may be vindictive and cruel but she’s a woman scorned – they’re supposed to be vindictive and cruel.
Personally I think the filmmakers missed an opportunity there. She was supposed to be desperately in love with Barnabas despite his rejection, but as he noted she saw him as more of a possession than a partner. I think if she had shown real love towards Barnabas it would have been much more poignant, but then it might have ruined the comic tone which I also think may have been a misstep – the film rarely achieves more than being amusing which is not what you want in a summer comedy.
The movie looks impressive with Collinswood being an amazing set, full of nautical touches that are gratifying in their detail and fully understandable given the family’s source of income. However, as lavish as the film looks and as well as Green and Depp do, it doesn’t hide the fact that there isn’t really a whole lot of passion displayed by the filmmakers; at least, I never feel inspired by the movie to do much more than smile occasionally. The movie felt to me almost workmanlike which is a shame because I had high hopes for it. Despite a lot of nice little touches it doesn’t add up to a satisfying film overall; but those touches are enough for me to recommend it with the caveat that it isn’t going to remain in your memory as long as the original series did.
REASONS TO GO: Depp inhabits his role well. Green has fun with her part. Nicely Gothic sets.
REASONS TO STAY: Most of the funniest bits are in the trailer. Purists will bemoan the comedic tone.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some comic violence, a fairly bizarre sex scene, some drug use and smoking and a bit of bad language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: To prepare for his role as Barnabas, Depp subsisted on a diet of green tea and low-sugar fruits in order to slim down to 140 pounds.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100. The reviews have been mixed although leaning more towards the negative side.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Vampires Suck
DARK SHADOWS LOVERS: Original series cast members Kathryn Leigh Scott, Lara Parker, David Selby and Jonathan Frid (in his last onscreen role before his death earlier this year) have cameos as guests at a party at Collinswood.
FINAL RATING: 5/10
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