(*homocinematically inclined)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Reel Thoughts: Return to Collinwood

Fans of the original Dark Shadows can breathe an undead sigh of relief. Despite trailers that show all but the raunchiest comic bits from the newest Dark Shadows, Tim Burton’s twisted take on the beloved Gothic soap opera of the late sixties is a fairly faithful reimagining, featuring more than enough nods to the original series to keep fans chuckling. It will be the people expecting a full-on Brady Bunch Movie parody or Scary Movie-type schlock who will be disappointed.

As in the original 1967-1971 series and its 1991 remake, the film takes place in the chilly Maine town of Collinsport, in the shadow of forbidding Collinwood Manor. Barnabus Collins, played mischievously but seriously by Johnny Depp, is the callow young son of a successful British nobleman who founds Collinsport in 1760. Barnabus spurns the advances of evil witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), who curses the entire Collins family and turns Barnabus into a vampire, before leading the townspeople to chain him into a coffin and bury him alive… or undead.

Fast forward to 1972, and Collinwood is a wreck, full of the dysfunctional remnants of the once mighty Collins clan. Young Maggie Evans a.k.a. Victoria Winters (a sly reference to how the series combined the characters of proper Victoria Winters and diner waitress Maggie Evans) begins her journey on a train to Collinwood to become the governess for unruly young David Collins (Gulliver McGrath, the only actor to play the role who you didn’t want to strangle).

Michelle Pfeiffer is a hoot as the world-weary Elizabeth Collins Stoddard and Jonny Lee Miller is funny if under-utilized as snobby brother Roger, David’s absentee father. Chloe Grace Moretz makes a wonderfully zonked-out Caroline, who was more of a spoiled princess in the series. Helena Bonham Carter looks amazingly garish as Dr. Julia Hoffman, and her performance is spot on, but hers is the character who is most underserved by the script.

Depp’s Barnabus is released by clueless construction workers at a McDonald’s and treks back to Collinwood and sets about restoring the Collins’ good name in the village, unaware that Angelique has spent the last two hundred years continuing her vendetta against the poor family. Depp is a perfect choice, and he imbues Barnabus with just the right amount of pompousness and charm. Green makes a throaty and entertaining Angelique, while Jackie Earle Haley is a funny grump as Willie Loomis.

One of the wackiest things about Dark Shadows was the way that one little Maine town managed to be home to vampires, witches, warlocks, werewolves, ghosts, a phoenix, demons and a time portal. While most of those don’t appear in Tim Burton’s version, the crazed ending unleashes enough supernatural beings to fill the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland.

Of course, a lot of Dark Shadows lore had to be lost to fit a 113 minute film, and I wish that the original cast members, including the late Jonathan Frid, had been given more to do in their cameos, but I appreciated the care with which Burton and Depp approached the piece, and I loved the production design immensely. I missed Barnabus and Julia’s odd relationship from the show, but since Burton wanted to concentrate on Barnabus and the family, I guess it wasn’t meant to be. Plus, there is always the sequel, however unlikely that is.

Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

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