Few director-star partnerships are as consistently eccentric or malleable as that of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, but even loyalists will detect an odor of mothballs clinging to their eighth bigscreen collaboration, “Dark Shadows.” Outfitting ABC’s cult-worshipped, occult-themed soap opera with super-slick production values and a tone that veers unsteadily between kooky comedy and gothic horror, this bizarre but weirdly bloodless retro-camp exercise is neither funny nor eerie enough to seduce the uninitiated, and will court bemused reactions at best from the series’ still-estimable fan following. Pic’s pedigree could intrigue auds for a spell, but long-term B.O. bewitchment seems unlikely.
Though short-lived by soap standards, “Dark Shadows” (1966-71) garnered instant notoriety and lasting appeal by injecting supernatural elements into the popular daytime serial format. Decades before the ghoulish denizens of “Buffy” and “Angel,” “Twilight” and “True Blood,” series mastermind Dan Curtis introduced viewers to Barnabas Collins, a 200-year-old vampire played with insinuating grace by Jonathan Frid.
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Burton and Depp have cited Curtis’ creation as a formative influence, and together with scenarist Seth Grahame-Smith, they have paid tribute to the show’s legacy in predictably whimsical, irreverent fashion. With a smirk and a wink, the filmmakers have inflated an enduring relic into an extravagantly empty postmodern artifact, an object lesson in the perils of camping up a property that had no shortage of camp appeal to begin with.
Gone is the atmosphere of grave, haunted solemnity that lent the series an irresistible conviction, despite its melodramatic trappings and rudimentary special effects. In its place are lavishly detailed sets, some mildly coarse sexual innuendo, and one joke after another predicated on the supposed hilarity of a Victorian aristocrat trying to navigate the era of disco and free love.
That would be Barnabas Collins (Depp), master of Collinwood Mansion, situated near the seaside Maine town of Collinsport. A prologue shrouded in the gray mists of 1795 reveals how Barnabas spurns a jealous witch, Angelique (Eva Green), who proceeds to send his true love (Bella Heathcote) to a watery grave. She then turns Barnabas into a vampire, burying him in a coffin until some very unfortunate construction workers dig him up nearly two centuries later.
It’s 1972, technically a year after the TV show ended, which is the film’s way of signaling that, unlike prior bigscreen spinoffs (1970’s “House of Dark Shadows” and 1971’s “Night of Dark Shadows”), this will be a reinvention rather than a continuation. After a nicely haunting credits sequence set to the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin,” the first of many period-specific tunes, young governess Victoria Winters (Heathcote again) takes a position at Collinwood, only to find that the venerable clan, led by formidable matriarch Elizabeth (a fine Michelle Pfeiffer), has fallen on hard times.
Fortunately, Victoria’s arrival coincides with the resurrection of Barnabas, who sets out to restore the Collinses and their failing fishery to their former luster. Pretending to be a distant English cousin, the vampire moves in with Elizabeth and her feckless brother, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller); her impudent teen daughter, Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz); and Roger’s troubled young son, David (Gully McGrath). Also in residence are child psychiatrist Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), a major series character upstaged here by a loud ginger wig; and hired help Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley), whom Barnabas makes his personal Igor.
All this unfolds with a peculiar absence of tension, creepiness or mounting drama, and most of the supporting characters seem to be present as a matter of name-checking obligation. In keeping with Burton’s morbid-to-the-max aesthetic, melanin is in short supply; even the non-undead characters look unreasonably pallid. That also goes for Angelique, still alive, beautiful and bent on either winning or destroying Barnabas after all these years; Green plays the character with memorably witchy flair, projecting a mix of brassy humor and diabolical attitude the rest of the film only intermittently achieves.
Burton’s Collinwood is not an unpleasant place to pass the time. Bruno Delbonnel lenses the cavernous mausoleum of a set (designed by Rick Heinrichs) to look at once foreboding and inviting, and Danny Elfman’s score provides a gentle, spooky caress. Yet the creative spirits haunting the place are strained and self-conscious; the largely mirthless fish-out-of-water jokes — as when Barnabas overreacts to a Karen Carpenter TV appearance, or politely disembowels a bunch of hippies — strand the film somewhere between Austin Powers and Addams Family. The result is a picture too rude and out-there to reproduce the show’s particular pleasures, yet too stilted and tame by contempo standards to deliver much of a bite.
Through it all, Depp gives a typically committed, exquisitely deadpan performance, looking quite at home with his claws, matted-down hair spikes and heavy eye-shadow, and turning the character’s archaic diction into a form of baroque music. As often happens when he gets his freak on, the actor seems lost in a private world, channeling ghosts whose frequency he alone can detect. Up until an f/x-laden climax that desperately conjures everything from “Rebecca” to “Death Becomes Her,” Depp just about holds it all together, unsurprisingly emerging as the pic’s most reliable element.
Frid, who died April 13, is one of several series vets making brief cameos in a party sequence also notably attended, and fronted, by Alice Cooper.