Saturday, December 21, 2013

Johnny Depp, Vampire Killer

Fondly remembered: the original TV cast of Dark Shadows.

After a solid week of computer hell (and it ain’t over yet), just getting a simple little blog post written and out will seem like a Major Accomplishment. 

Days and days of living in Recovery Mode left me in a mood to enjoy something new. And so, in the evening, with a second restored system mostly in place, I settled back to watch Burton and Depp’s interpretation of Dark Shadows

Thank goodness it was only four bucks. 

I knew going in that it wasn’t going to be “my” Dark Shadows. I’m old enough to have learned not to expect the impossible, went in with an open mind, receptive to a modern treatment —  and found a movie that should have been a lot better than it is.

Burton and Depp were probably the wrong choice for this material even if they had both been at the top of their game. Sadly, Burton is far from at his best here, and as for Johnny Depp… what has happened to the damn fool man? Someone, somewhere, pointed out that YOUNG Johnny Depp would hate the Johnny Depp he has evolved into… and they were right on target.

Ever since Pirates of the Caribbean, Depp has been content delivering the same smirking, wild-eyed performance in role after role, movie after movie. His Barnabus Collins is indistinguishable from his Tonto or his Captain Jack. Buried under tons of make-up, he swaggers through every new role with the same astonished deadpan… and it’s gotten old, folks. Really, really old.

To my mind Depp represents one of the more astonishing career decompositions of recent years. Once one of our most promising actors, he sold his soul to the Disney Devil and then tried to justify it to himself by swaggering contemptuously through the part: only to find himself stuck, chained in a coffin so to speak, incapable of anything approaching real acting. I’m sure his bank account is a marvel to behold — but y’now what? My mother was a big fan of his… and I’m glad she’s not around to see this shit.

Depp is a major drain on Dark Shadows from the moment he rises from the grave. Part of it is natural: his baby face works against the role. The Halloween fright make-up doesn’t help. As Barnabas Collins, Jonathan Frid sold the role with his old-world, pockmarked face, his straight-ahead performance, and even with his sometimes visible anxiety over his inability to remember his lines. Frid was Barnabus Collins, whether he liked it or not (and he didn’t)… Depp never stops reminding us that he’s Depp.

The picture gets off to a fine start. Of course it looks good as you would expect from Burton, and in its opening scenes it establishes a steady balance in tone, a strong dramatic atmosphere with just a little wink here and there. Structurally it presents a very adequate compression of some of the TV series plot lines that unfolded over months and months, with the addition of a Beginning, Middle and End. Collinwood looks just as it should; Collinsport, Maine actually looks like Maine, and the Collins family as they are introduced are wonderfully right in spirit, especially Michelle Pfieffer in the Joan Bennett part. Only Roger Collins is badly misinterpreted, and at first we hardly notice: the screenwriters obviously found him a useless character but were unable to write him out until late in the film. 

But then Barnabus Depp makes his entrance looking and acting like a Drag Queen and it all goes to hell in a fish basket. When it comes to Dark Shadows, a little comedy goes a looooong way, and after the first twenty minutes they start piling it own with a backhoe. Unfortunately none of it is funny. Not. One. Joke. 

You’d think that Hollywood could have learned this lesson by now. The comedy undermines the drama while the drama undermines the comedy. By the time Barnabus and Angelique are throwing themselves all over the walls and ceiling to the tune of Barry White’s “My First, My Last, My Everything,” it’s all over. Time to drive a stake through its shriveled heart.

In the end, Burton and Depp’s Dark Shadows is nailed down by two seemingly minor things: first, how do you make a movie out of Dark Shadows without once using the haunting original theme music? Not once. Not even a bar or two. Hello, it was the best part of the show! Second, the cameo featuring then-surviving members of the original TV series cast is flat-out offensive, even disrespectful. It’s not that Jonathan Frid was on Death’s Door and had to be carried through the shot. The point is, why bother to have them in at all when you’re unwilling to let them do more than just flit through a shot? Blink and you miss it.

You want to know how to do a cameo? Watch the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary show, “The Day of the Doctor.” Suddenly, just at the very end, unexpected and unannounced, Tom Baker appears. Nearing eighty and unable to stand without a cane, Baker approaches Matt Smith as one to another, as an equal, and it is given to Baker to speak the dialogue that brings the entire plot together in a neat and tearjerking moment.

That’s how you do a cameo.

The bottom line here is that, for all their professed admiration of the original show, Burton and Depp have no respect for the material. They think that they’re cleverer than Dan Curtis. Whatever else he was, including a cheapskate and an egomaniac, no one is cleverer than Dan Curtis.

— Freder

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