The original idea of a Tim Burton-directed “Dark Shadows” certainly must have seemed like a good one on paper, with the master of mass-market Goth applying his imagination and a Hollywood budget to the infamously on-the-cheap, Dan Curtis-created cult soap opera that ran from 1966 to 1971 on ABC before spawning various film and TV follow-ups.
And then, when early trailers revealed that Burton was making a comedy with humor springing from an 18th-century vampire’s confusion in the mini-skirted world of 1972, it appeared that Burton would be returning to his “Beetlejuice” roots, mining laughs from the supernatural.
But now we get the movie itself, which turns out to be not particularly funny and not at all scary, with characters so barely defined that they would work only in a spoof of the material. (Which brings us back to the “not particularly funny” problem.)
The result is an expensive, all-star bore, albeit a bore that’s been art-directed to a fare-thee-well (by Chris Lowe and his team), with clothing and furnishings captured to full and garish Watergate-era effect while all the faces, mortal and immortal alike, retain a ghostly, ghastly pallor.
Johnny Depp stars as Barnabas Collins, heir to a rich and powerful fishing dynasty in colonial Maine. He loves the fair Josette (Bella Heathcote) but makes the mistake of spurning the lovesick Angelique (Eva Green), who drives Josette to suicide, turns Barnabas into a vampire and convinces the Collinsport townsfolk to bury him alive.
Almost two centuries later, a work crew accidentally disinters Barnabas’ coffin, releasing the bloodsucker into a world he barely recognizes. The still-living witch Angelique (now known as Angel Bay) has taken over the town’s fishing and cannery businesses, and the only ones still living in the moldering Collins family manor are Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her discontented teen daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moritz), along with Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller) and his son David (Gulliver McGrath). Also in the house is boozy psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), who hopes to disabuse David of the notion that he can communicate with his dead mother.
Arriving on the scene just before Barnabas is David’s new governess Victoria (Heathcote), who turns out to be Josette’s spitting image. This potentially interesting subplot gets scuttled for most of the film, as does Victoria herself, but while it’s a flaw of the script (written by “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” author Seth Grahame-Smith, from a story by Grahame-Smith and John August), it spares us from Heathcote’s flat performance. She’s got the right look for the movie, resembling one of Edgar Allan Poe’s wan heroines, but the more she talks, the less interesting she is.
The film basically reignites the love-hate relationship between Barnabas and Angelique, while throwing in tons of weren’t-the-‘70s-wacky jokes (Macramé! The Carpenters! Lava lamps!) that felt played out four years ago when the mostly-forgotten Will Ferrell vehicle “Semi-Pro” hit theaters.
Depp milks whatever laughs he can out of the anachronism humor, and Pfeiffer nails a specific kind of daytime-drama earnestness, but the rest of the cast feels adrift when not downright miscast. (Second only to Heathcote’s blandness is Green’s inability to select and stick with an accent.)
“Dark Shadows” reminds us that Tim Burton is the Woody Allen for Hot Topic shoppers — going in, you never know if you’re getting one of his great movies or one of his duds. This one falls firmly, thuddingly, into the latter category.