Two score and four years ago, I’d fly home from fourth grade for the 4 p.m. broadcast of Dark Shadows. In 1968, vampires and werewolves weren’t mainstream — the era’s horror films mostly played drive-ins — yet here on TV was a daily horror soap opera.
In 1966, creator Dan Curtis conceived of a show that was Gothic but nonsupernatural, like Jane Eyre. But after less than a year, with Dark Shadows on the verge of cancellation, he threw a Hail Mary pass, directing his writers to add a vampire. In came Barnabas Collins, played by Canadian actor Jonathan Frid, a villain meant to be staked through the heart after a few months.
But fan response went through the roof, and Barnabas became a lovelorn hero fighting against his curse, a predecessor to Twilight’s Edward Cullen — while the 40ish Frid became an unlikely teen-girl heartthrob alongside Shindig idol Bobby Sherman.
Frid, who died recently, routinely fluffed his lines at a time when it was too expensive to reshoot and edit the videotape. But many people — including the actor himself — thought his palpable discomfort worked for the character. His Barnabas seemed afflicted with a nervous melancholy. While the plotline was nonsensical, the pacing torturous and the budget tiny, Dark Shadows cast a spell.
It’s hard to suppress my preference for talking about the original over Tim Burton’s film, which isn’t a remake so much as a mostly unfunny camp sendup. The script by Seth Grahame-Smith is witless and meandering — and I wouldn’t mind the witless so much if it moved, or the meandering if it were droll.
There’s no evident love of the genre, as in Burton’s splendid Hammer Films homage Sleepy Hollow, and a lot of the targets are low-hanging fruit — loud ’60s and ’70s fashions, or a late-18th-century vampire finding himself in 1972, pounding on a TV set and calling Karen Carpenter a tiny sorceress. (OK, that’s funny. Still, I can’t tell why Dark Shadows was made, apart from Johnny Depp’s wanting to play Barnabas.)
The 1790s prologue is played straight, although it hurtles by so quickly it feels like a coming-attraction reel. Barnabas, heir to the Collins estate on the Maine coast, sleeps with and then jilts a servant girl, Angelique (Eva Green), who turns out to be a witch.
The jealous Angelique compels Barnabas’ true love, Josette, to fling herself from a high cliff, curses Barnabas with vampirism, and arranges for him to be sealed in his coffin for eternity. Dug up two centuries later by a construction crew, the vampire discovers that the class-envious Angelique not only lives, but has taken over the fishing village of Collinsport and driven the aristocratic Collins family into near bankruptcy.
In between ripping out throats and swooning over Collins governess Victoria Winters, a dead ringer for Josette played by Bella Heathcote, Barnabas vows to restore the family fishing business — and so Dark Shadows becomes a business farce in which Depp’s taloned, whey-faced bloodsucker constantly fends off the sultry Green’s advances.
At least Eva Green is a loose-limbed, glittering-eyed seductress-cum-terminator — and too much woman, if you ask me, for Depp’s lightweight ghoul. It’s great that he didn’t go the dreamy movie-star route to compete with Twilight, but his Barnabas is at the other extreme — a freaky little boy in a Halloween costume.
The other actors look amusing in Colleen Atwood’s eye-popping clothes against Rick Heinrich’s hyperbolic Gothic sets, but they’re playing one-joke characters. In the old Joan Bennett matriarch role, Michelle Pfeiffer does a starched great-lady turn with spasms of mugging, while Helena Bonham Carter in a flame-red wig plays Dr. Julia Hoffman as a conniving dipsomaniac. Chloe Grace Moretz has bright moments as the teenage Carolyn, but everyone else — including Hammer veteran Christopher Lee and a handful of original Dark Shadows actors — are trotted out to no good end.
Tim Burton exults in things offbeat, droopy, morbid. But the ghoulishly amusing images notwithstanding, Dark Shadows is dead on the screen. Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.