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By Shane M. Dallmann

This one I was going to skip. NOT because Tim Burton and Johnny Depp were taking on DARK SHADOWS in and of itself, you must understand. I had mixed feelings on CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY and didn’t care for ALICE IN WONDERLAND, but on the other hand, ED WOOD, SLEEPY HOLLOW and SWEENEY TODD were all top-drawer in my book.

No, it wasn’t “the very idea.” It was that godawful trailer that showed nothing but comedy bits and made DARK SHADOWS look like an utter mockery of one of my favorite childhood memories (yes, I was among those who raced home from school to catch the original series every day).

But a last glimpse of Jonathan Frid, a Christopher Lee cameo and reassuring reports from people I trust that the film was NOT simply like the trailer convinced me that I should at least see the film for myself. And by and large, I’m glad I did, because I can now tell you that Burton & Co. DID respect the show and that the proper attitude does, indeed, manifest itself.

I scarcely need recount the storyline here, but the new DARK SHADOWS gets off to a terrific start with a prologue setting up the curse bestowed on Barnabas Collins (Depp, of course) and his entire family by the vengeful witch Angelique (Eva Green)–there’s nothing at all to laugh at here. Naturally, once Barnabas awakens in the 1970s, there’s the expected “fish out of water” business (decently handled), but NOT before he slakes his thirst by savagely attacking his rescuers.

Barnabas himself supplies the narration in a departure from the original–that honor originally went to the Victoria Winters character, now played by Bella Heathcoate, who does quite well as both the new Collinswood caretaker and the spectre of the doomed love interest of the 1800s Barnabas. Through her, we get to meet many more entertaining characters: Michelle Pfeiffer is fine as matriarch Elizabeth, Chloe Grace Moretz (Hit Girl herself) is great fun as Carolyn, and Burton mainstay Helena Bonham Carter puts her own spin on live-in psychiatrist Julia Hoffman. Sorry, there’s no Quentin character this time around.

Also notable are Jonny Lee Miller as the faithless Roger (who contributes greatly to the film’s well-established theme of family honor) and young Gulliver McGrath as the misunderstood David. And Jackie Earle Haley threatens to steal the show every time he pops up as Willie the caretaker.

The cameos by the original cast members are simultaneous, silent and blink-and-you-miss-it, unfortunately, but at least Christopher Lee gets a decent scene as a gruffly dignified old sea dog. When it comes to cameos, it’s actually Alice Cooper (as himself) who scores highest, and not just because he can still pull off his 70s stage persona–his background vocals also greatly enhance a traumatic flashback narrated by Victoria in the second half of the film.

Still, it’s up to Depp and Green to carry the bulk of the film, which they do with plenty of gusto–and naturally, the special effects that back them up (especially one involving the maintenance of Angelique’s external appearance after all those years) are impeccable.

Okay. Respect is there. And I have no complaints about the admittedly soap-opera plot because we’re DEALING with a soap opera, after all. Sometimes it gets sillier than the show allowed, but that’s also forgivable because we can’t HAVE the original show with the original cast anymore–Burton is certainly entitled to inject his own personality into the proceedings. My only problem with DARK SHADOWS is that the momentum eventually wears off as the film vacillates between the serious and the comedic, only finding the right balance as it nears the finale.

No spoilers here, but as this is a self-contained feature film, the complicated saga has to find its way to a chaotic, effects-heavy climax (you’ll certainly yell “BEETLEJUICE” when you see the snake-monster, but at least nobody’s trying to mug like Michael Keaton). The results are pretty much what you’d expect when you try to wrap up an entire soap opera in a single episode, but it’s probably about as good a wrap-up as could have been devised for such a production. Naturally, there’s a window left open for continuation, but at this point it’s safe to say that it isn’t going to happen.

In the end, this isn’t a prime-time, full ticket-price event, but if you’re among those who say “I refuse to see DARK SHADOWS because I respect the original,” I suggest you reconsider–at least for a rental. There’s still plenty of good fun to be had here.

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