MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Dark Shadows’

Film shamelessly strives for cult status

For a movie to be a cult classic, it requires a cult. This doesn’t develop overnight.

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” endured critical opprobrium and slack box office, before rising to fame as a midnight movie with audience participation. “Showgirls” was excoriated by critics before audiences started to revere the sexploitation picture as a spectacle of pure and delicious awfulness.

“Dark Shadows” is striving, a bit shamelessly, for the kind of cult status that is typically conferred over time. It has one thing going for it in this regard: It’s based on the gothic 1960s ABC-TV soap opera that developed a loyal, and somewhat unhinged, following that celebrated the show with fan fiction, art and regular conventions.

But even without this marketing hook, “Dark Shadows” succeeds precisely because of its utter and abject lack of shame. The acting is so horrid and overplayed that it’s charming. The screenplay relies to a ludicrous extent on exposition, and the story, while compressed, preserves a lot of the silliness of the original show. With its recreation of the look and feel of a spooky, remote, oceanfront castle and repeated close-ups of waves crashing on the rocky Maine coast, the film is visually faithful to the campy, low-budget source material. Of course, because this is a Tim Burton movie, no expense is spared to create a loving, full color version of the grim setting.

Johnny Depp stars as Barnabas Collins, the star-crossed scion of a family that made a fortune in the fishing business in Maine in the middle of the 18th century. After a brief affair with Angelique (Eva Green), a lusty but jealous housemaid who dabbles in the dark arts, Barnabas is cursed. His parents die, followed by his next love interest. When Barnabas tries to take his own life, he discovers that he’s been transformed into an immortal vampire, doomed to spend his days in shadow and his nights subsisting on the blood of the living.

The vampire thing doesn’t go well. He’s tracked down by townspeople and locked in a coffin for about 200 years before being dug up and revived in 1972. The best parts of the movie feature Mr. Depp doing elegant 18th century spit-takes in astonishment at 20th century technology, culture and mores. He also faces the task of earning the trust of his putative descendants, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) and the young and very troubled David Collins (Gulliver McGrath). The crowd in the decaying castle keep on the Maine coast also includes governess Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote) and Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), the psychiatrist charged with David’s treatment. There’s also an unexpected antagonist lurking in the wings.

By rights, “Dark Shadows” shouldn’t work. It’s a dark comedy that lacks conspicuous intelligence. As a horror movie, it’s full of necromancy and the occult, yet not scary for a moment. But there’s something oddly delightful about the mix of scenery chewing and CGI in “Dark Shadows” that makes it a solid entertainment, if perhaps not quite an oddball cult classic for the ages.

★★★

TITLE:“Dark Shadows”

CREDITS: Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith

RATING: PG-13, for violence and mild gore

RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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