Dark Shadows (Warner Bros.) was probably a beneficiary of the low expectations I brought into it. Tim Burton adapts a late-’60s/early ‘70s TV soap about a melancholy vampire, with Johnny Depp in the lead: All the elements of that sound so drearily familiar, from vampires to TV-shows-turned-movies to Burton/Depp collaborations in camp-Gothic mode. And stretches of this movie do feel dreary: like Burton’s recent Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows puts too much faith in the power of lavish costumes and eye-popping set décor and Danny Elfman’s music, and too little in constructing a well-paced story. But there’s something there that elevates Burton’s Dark Shadows above the strained, plodding whimsy of his Alice: At least he and Depp, both avowed childhood fans of the original series, seem to be in their element and having a grand old time.
I recall the ABC series Dark Shadows only as a formless but vivid childhood sense memory. By the time I was old enough to watch, it was in languid syndication, the kind of thing that would play on a high-on-the-dial channel in the early afternoon on a weekday. I usually caught it only when I was home sick from school, which may account for the quality of febrile vagueness with which I remember the show. I had no sense of who the characters were or what they were doing, just that there was a lot of velvet and wall sconces and long meaningful looks between serious-faced adults in scary costumes. And the background sound—a mixture of noodling theremins and echo-y soundstage silence—was (and still is) obscurely terrifying. Watching Dark Shadows on Netflix now (the whole series is currently streaming), I realize how radical it must have seemed in the TV landscape of the time: In a world of candy-colored Laugh-In giddiness, it was somber, creepy high camp, and its use of live-to-tape format (one take, with line flubs and other glitches left in) only added to its rough-and-ready appeal.
Depp, who would have been 7 when Dark Shadows went off the air in 1971, has said that his identification with the show was so deep as child that he longed for nothing more than to be Barnabas Collins, the 18th-century English vampire who awakens into the modern world.* It’s easy to see why: Depp has always loved to play melancholy outsiders who find happiness only when they embrace their inner weirdo (a role Tim Burton, a longtime friend, has lovingly supplied Depp with in nearly every one of the eight films they’ve done together). Depp is also drawn to roles involving extreme costumes and makeup, another specialty of Burton’s.
It’s Depp as Barnabas that holds the movie together. The story may be less than coherent and some of the minor characters washouts, but when he’s on-screen, there’s energy and humor and that foppish sex appeal that (as in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie) reminds you why you once liked Johnny Depp. As he roams the halls of Collinwood mansion, gloomily clutching a lace hanky, Depp sometimes evokes Tim Curry as the transsexual mad scientist Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (not that his performance, or this movie, achieves that level of camp sublimity).
The movie version of Barnabas wakes from his two-century sleep near the town of Collinsport, Maine, where he lived as a child with his wealthy parents. When, as a young man, Barnabas jilted his housemaid, Angelique (Eva Greene) for a wispy beauty named Josette (Bella Heathcote), Angelique went bonkers, revealed her true nature as a witch, and cast deadly spells on both Josette and Barnabas’ parents before turning him into a vampire and chaining him in a coffin. When Barnabas finally escapes his prison in 1972, the evil Angélique is still alive, or rather, still undead, and she’s determined to keep him from finding love with the Collinwood mansion’s new governess, Victoria Winter (also played by Bella Heathcote—which is not to suggest that she might be, you know, the reincarnation of Barnabas’ lost love or anything like that …)
The portion of the movie in which a fresh-from-the-grave Barnabas acquaints himself with the customs of American pop culture circa 1972 is full of silly-but-satisfying vampire sight gags: Barnabas brushes his teeth before a bathroom mirror, in which all we see is a floating toothbrush. Unable to find a dignified place for his daytime naps, Barnabas is reduced to using an empty refrigerator box, an aggrieved expression on his face as he cleans out the packing peanuts. The aesthetic dissonance of a vampire encountering a lava lamp or a box of Wheaties isn’t enough to sustain a whole movie—as we learn with a yawn in Dark Shadows’ hectic, overcrammed last act—but it provides for some pretty good jokes in the middle section. So does Helena Bonham Carter, Tim Burton’s real-life partner, who is steadily becoming one of the best character actresses going. Here, she plays a no-nonsense, tough-talking shrink who lives with the Collins family in order to counsel their young son (Gulliver McGrath), who’s haunted by the ghost of his mother.
Michelle Pfeiffer is underserved by her role as the steely Collins family matriarch, but she still nails the few big scenes she gets. (More Michelle Pfeiffer, please.) And Eva Greene, the coolly beautiful French actress who played James Bond’s treacherous true love in Casino Royale, really needs to become the next big thing pronto: She turns a fairly generic sexy witch into a memorably delicious villain, especially in a scene where she and Barnabas destroy a very mod ‘70s office in a bout of athletic, gravity-defying sex. I don’t mean to oversell Dark Shadows-at the end of the day it’s just another overcooked late-Tim Burton style-fest, with enough good gags and strong performances to keep the audience from dwelling on the flaws. But Hollywood greenlighters should take note: It makes a small but important difference when the property a big-budget director is adapting is something he truly loves.
Correction, May 10, 2012: This review originally stated that Johnny Depp would have been 9 years old when Dark Shadows’ original run ended. (Return to corrected sentence.)