After the personality-free (but huge-grossing) debacle that was Alice in Wonderland, Tim Burton's film adaptation of Dark Shadows — the 1966-71 vampire-driven daytime soap — at least shows signs of the more idiosyncratic and confounding director. The nasty slashes of black humor in Sweeney Todd and the dark orphan wailing in many of Burton's superior earlier films weave in and out of view here but never take hold. Dark Shadows settles for more Burton pastiche, a campy dredging up of material perhaps better outgrown than remade.
How campy? If you've seen the trailer for Dark Shadows, you've seen a few seconds of the sex scene that pits Johnny Depp's vampire against Eva Green's witch in an airborne carnal frenzy. The two destroy a roomful of deeply ugly 1970s furniture while bumping and grinding to Barry White. That's a long way from Twilight (on which we can probably blame Dark Shadows having been green-lit), yet it's also not nearly as garish or as consistently entertaining as it should be. (It's also somehow laughably unsexy — despite its specimens, still cosmetically appealing under untold makeup and CGI.) Burton can't transcend the kitsch that defines his source, and the result is a big-budget, who-asked-for-this-anyway homage.
Depp is Barnabas Collins, the heir to a family fishery fortune and a centuries-old vampire. In 1768, Barnabas is cursed by a spurned servant, Angelique Bouchard (Green) — who turns out to be a vengeful witch. After watching his spell-doomed lover Josette (Bella Heathcote) leap to her death, Barnabas is buried by vampire-fearing townspeople. Discovered by construction workers in 1972, he's overwhelmed by culture shock (Alice Cooper, independent women and flairs everywhere, man!) but resolves to restore Collinswood, his ancestral home, to its former glory. His family allies include Chloë Grace Moretz (so good as a vampire in Let Me In) and Michelle Pfeiffer, with Jackie Earle Haley a hapless manservant.
Meanwhile, Angelique — enjoying her own eternal life — tries to win Barnabas back, even as the vampire tries to seduce Victoria Winters (Heathcote again). Psychiatrist Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) wants to become a vampire like Barnabas, and, in other nods to the original series (whose, like, 40,000 episodes have been reissued on DVD), there's a teenage werewolf, a haunted boy and a very powerful ghost.
Admittedly, it was probably too much to ask of Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (author of the multiplex-bound novels Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) to cull all of the story's plot strands into a cohesive something-or-other. Still, Burton's apparent affection for Dark Shadows' world of shrill melodrama is hampered rather than helped by this adaptation's preposterous happenings. Burton and Grahame-Smith go for easy jokes (with several diminished by repetition) but do so in indecisive ways. See again: Depp and Green's high-flying coitus. The film's implicit ludicrousness might be meant to speak for itself, but Burton could have played things straighter — or turned the goofy to its logical amperage — and given us a much more uniformly satisfying (or, this being Burton, enraging) film.
Instead, Dark Shadows ends up a conventionally amusing, somewhat enjoyable, mostly just confusing homage to a show that nobody but die-hard cultists even remember. But if this is the film that Burton (and fellow self-avowed Dark Shadows die-hard cultist Depp) wanted to make, the Donovan song cues and campfire massacres and ghost-love sex triangles and blow-job jokes suggest that the object wasn't to make a very good movie. It's less about blackhearted thrills than it is about a peculiarly Burton-ish nostalgia: 1972 as a trippy, slap-happy time when you could go see Super Fly at your local Smalltown USA movie theater, under the hypnotic gaze of a white-faced vampire with a goofy British accent. Another trippy stumble into a shallow rabbit hole.