Johnny Depp and Tim Burton get together again for a fun-enough makeover of an old TV favorite.
The latest vintage TV show to get all dressed up as a fancy, big-budget feature film, Dark Shadows sinks its teeth halfway into its potentially meaty material but hesitates to go all the way. With an oddball premise that's right up his alley, director Tim Burton has stylish fun with a morally-and-time-warped family visited by an undead 18th century relative, as does Johnny Depp in the role of the antique British-accented vampire. But the humor slithers between the clever and the sophomoric, and the film too often seems willing to settle for mild humor at the expense of hippie-era mores instead of pursuing the palpable temptation to become genuinely twisted. Still, with its central bloodsucker-vs.-witch rivalry and Depp in one of his patented bizarro roles, this has all the ear and tooth marks of an early summer winner for Warner Bros.
Reportedly, Depp's childhood obsession with the series' romantically haunted central character, Barnabas Collins, was deep to the point of being all-consuming. Unsurprisingly, the teenaged Burton also was a devotee of Dan Curtis' daily afternoon show, which ran on ABC from 1966 to 1971 and amassed 1,225 episodes. Thus the eighth collaboration between the actor and director was born.
After a dockside Liverpool opening that makes it look like Burton is still making Sweeney Todd, a prologue set in the 1790s tells the tale of the Collins family's voyage to America, their establishment of a fishing empire in Maine and heir Barnabas' tragic love for the exquisite Josette (Bella Heathcote). The latter is made to fling herself off a cliff by the spurned witch Angelique (Eva Green), who then avenges herself against Barnabas by turning him into a vampire and burying him.
The workmen who dig up Barnabas' coffin in 1972 are thanked for the efforts by becoming his first victims -- he is, he readily admits, very thirsty -- and he presently makes his way to his old home, the grand Collinwood Manor, now in a state of sorrowful disrepair, as are its occupants. Matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) presides over a depressive, eccentric household that includes her insolent daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), no-good brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), his 10-year-old son David (Gulliver McGrath), David's tippling shrink Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), lowdown caretaker Willie (Jackie Earle Haley) and a newly arrived nanny, Victoria, who looks just like Josette of yore. And, lo and behold, the big boss in town -- whose own fishing operation has wiped the Collins company out -- is one Angie, the remarkably preserved Angelique, just waiting for another chance to make old Barnabas her own.
Given that the screenwriter here is Seth Grahame-Smith, author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, much is made of bizarre conjunctures and unexpected associations; Barnabas must get used to everything from motorized vehicles and electricity to troll dolls and lava lamps. Depp drolly underplays the refined vampire's reactions to all this and more, though the soundtrack's frequent japes in this direction tip the balance toward too-easy irony.
Given that Burton has traded in such off-kilter, oddly populated, humorously horrible material so many times before, there are few surprises in the way Dark Shadows has been handled tonally or visually. However, Depp is right on the money in a studiously controlled, steadfastly humorous performance that takes its rightful place in his personal portrait gallery of one-off misfits.
Opens: Friday, May 11 (Warners)
Cast: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Chloe Grace Moretz
Director: Tim Burton
Rated: PG-13, 114 minutes