1752, Maine. After Barnabas Collins (Depp) spurns the love of witch Angelique Bouchard (Green), she sends his beloved Josette DuPres (Bella Heathcote) to her death, turns him into a vampire and then buries him alive. Two centuries later Barnabas returns and vows to restore the family name and manor to its former glories.
Tim Burton turned 14 in 1972, the year Dark Shadows is mostly set. Although it is based on Dan Curtis’ late-60s supernatural soap (a prime influence on Burton’s melding of the spooky and the kitsch), it can also be read as semi- autobiography. Not that the young Burton slept hanging from curtains or sucked the blood of hippies (then again, who knows?), but, as a teen weaned on Edgar Allan Poe, Hammer horror and Harryhausen, he must have felt a similar sense of profound dislocation to Dark Shadows’ vampire, Barnabas Collins, in the age of Farrah Fawcett flicks and Disco (not Dante’s) Inferno. It’s this sense of alienation that Dark Shadows invokes, then plays for tons of fun.
For Johnny Depp’s Barnabas, all Nosferatu hand gestures and Romantic formality, is a brilliantly realised anachronism rudely transplanted into the ’70s, misinterpreting the McDonald’s golden arches, freaked out by asphalt, completely bemused by the concepts of waffles and lava lamps. He is a man out of time who thinks the answer to any woe is to throw a ball and recites the lyrics to Steve Miller’s The Joker as if it were Romantic poetry. As a kid, Depp used to run home from school to watch Jonathan Frid’s Barnabas on TV. Here, he has fully honoured his hero, creating a funny, charismatic monster who is struggling to figure out what it means to be human.
Which is just as well, for Dark Shadows has a compelling central character but not a real centre. There are lots of story strands vying for attention — Barnabas’ mission to revitalise the family fishing business, his wooing of the new housekeeper (Bella Heathcote), his sessions with Helena Bonham Carter’s live-in psychiatrist — but ultimately all get short shrift. The overarching story charts Barnabas’ passionate feud with witch Angelique (Eva Green, looking the part rather than owning it) but, save a memorable Barry White-scored sex scene, this feels repetitive and never really catches fire. Michelle Pfeiffer adds grace and class as head of the household Elizabeth, but the rest of the family, from Jonny Lee Miller’s bad-egg brother and Chloë Grace Moretz’s wild-child daughter to Gulliver McGrath’s troubled son, never really register as they should.
Yet the biggest problem lies with tone. The TV show was renowned for its Ed Wood-like shonky sets, strange line readings and booms in shot, yet Burton eschews this in favour of high-end production value — Collinwood Manor is production-designed to within an inch of its life and Danny Elfman’s score impressively broods— played against a stylised acting approach that hints at the show’s amateur origins.
Beyond the vampire-in-the-’70s schtick, Burton’s love of full-on Gothic flash and thunder (the prologue goes full Sleepy Hollow) and the gruesome (Barnabas’ murder of some hapless workmen would sit right at home in Let The Right One In) gets full reign. Yet the director and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, so he has previous with monster mash-ups) never corral the comedy, the horror, the family saga and the Gothic romance into a completely satisfying brew; it all feels about five per cent off. Perhaps the film it most resembles, especially as it moves towards its CG-fuelled climax, is Death Becomes Her, an entertaining if oddball mélange of the dark, the comedic and the blockbuster.
A word of warning: this is not the knockabout comedy the trailer suggests. Instead, it cleaves closer to what you expect from Burton: darkness, quirk and Johnny Depp on great form. A step up, then, from Alice In Wonderland and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, but not tip-top Tim.