Some of director Tim Burton’s costume parties are livelier than others, and the new Dark Shadows—from the man who gave us Edward Scissorhands, Sweeney Todd, Alice in Wonderland and other chalkface-makeup spectaculars starring Johnny Depp—feels like a placeholder, a meandering first draft of an adaptation of the supernatural soap opera that ran on ABC from 1966 to 1971.
Are we simply fanged out? Certainly global popular culture has drained an awful lot of blood in recent years, making it more challenging for Dark Shadows screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter) to seduce an audience, whether that audience is new to the Barnabas Collins mythology or old pals of the series. Dark Shadows illustrates the fine line in a pop reboot between “relaxed” and “lazy.” For all his prodigious imagination, director Burton often has trouble when it comes to name brands and story momentum. In Dark Shadows, scene after scene find Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green, Helena Bonham Carter and Chloë Grace Moretz all dressed up and ready to play, only to be left high and dry by the material.
The central joke of the picture—that long-buried Barnabas awakens from his 200-year hiatus to find himself in the strange new world of 1972—is good for a few bits, as when Barnabas is seen devouring a hardback edition of Love Story. Few movie stars can add nonverbal detail or idiosyncratic comment, arched eyebrow or not, the way Depp can. (What’s this frozen waffle you place before me?) And yet I wonder if the ongoing Depp/Burton collaboration has its pitfalls. Depp often settles for posing and making droll faces, in reaction-shot mode, instead of building an eccentric comic portrait of any size. I long for the energy and invention of a performance such as Depp’s Ed Wood in Burton’s Ed Wood. But then, that wasn’t a $125 million international export.
The prologue of Dark Shadows plays it relatively straight. The witch Angelique (Green, the best thing in the movie) curses Barnabas, prosperous heir to a fishery fortune on the coast of Maine, and confines him to a coffin. The Nixon-era story relates to competing fishing concerns between the remaining Collins clan, headed by Pfeiffer, and the undead stunner played by Green. Barnabas arrives as the long-lost relative. Characters wander around, vaguely put out by other characters. The preteen boy David (Gulliver McGrath) has a ghost for a mother, and Barnabas becomes his protector and savior. Hippies are devoured, in one of the better scenes—a deadpan campfire sequence in which Barnabas wonders who these freaks are, exactly.
The series wasn’t like anything else on television in its day, though the old Dark Shadows owed much to the Hammer horror vibe (toned down for the network) of the same era’s big-screen vampire outings. Burton’s Dark Shadows isn’t slovenly in terms of craft or technique; it’s nicely cast and has its moments. But it feels extremely familiar and oddly impersonal for a project inspired by both Depp’s and Burton’s youthful obsession with the show.
Dark Shadows (PG-13) ★★☆☆☆