A significant portion of Tim Burton's output over the past decade has been concerned with slipping the "Burton treatment" to susceptible texts: Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland — and now, Dark Shadows.
A supernaturally themed daily daytime soap, Dark Shadows aired on ABC from 1966 to 1971, ruling the after-school time slot. Its story revolved around the family life of vampire Barnabas Collins, a figure of purposeful aristocratic bearing and seductive decadence played by Jonathan Frid, who died just weeks before the premiere of Burton's film. Shot one-take live-to-tape, with all the attendant imperfections of blown lines, wobbling candelabras and uncooperative stage doors, the show can be reduced to camp, merely the sum of its shoddy elements — but it also provided a generation of young Americans a glamorously gloomy antidote to the mainstream televised entertainment of the day, personified by Love, American Style and the Carpenters.
Burton standby Johnny Depp fills the Barnabas role in this new film version, which begins with a prologue, narrated in a grave rumble by Depp, that reveals the origin of the Collins curse. Leaving Liverpool, a still-mortal Barnabas arrives with his parents in Colonial-era Maine, where they build a commercial empire and establish the family seat, Collinwood Mansion. As a young man, Barnabas is torn between profane and sacred loves — with lowly servant Angelique (Eva Green) and hypergamous fiancée, Josette (Bella Heathcote), respectively — and winds up with neither, for the spurned Angelique practices black magic, hexing Josette to death and Barnabas to endless suffering as a vampire, imprisoned in a chained-up coffin and buried (eternally) alive.
The bulk of Dark Shadows takes place in 1972, after Barnabas has been accidentally exhumed. Dazzled by paved roads and McDonald's, Barnabas arrives at a half-ruined Collinwood to take his place at the head of what remains of his family — matriarch and distant cousin, Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer); her son and useless heir, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller, channeling John Saxon); his teenaged sister, Carolyn (Chloë Moretz); and Roger's troubled motherless child, David (Gulliver McGrath), haunted by Mommy's ghost. To deal with David's issues, two additional members of the household have been acquired: psychiatrist Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) and governess Victoria, a spitting image of Barnabas's lost love (also played by Heathcote). A less-welcome familiar face is the magnate who has ruined the Collins' fame and fortune through the decades — none other than the eternal Angelique.
This is a platoon of a cast, few of whom have time to make much of an impression as, in under two hours, Burton's Dark Shadows must distill the essence of a 1,225-episode story arc (recently released by MPI Home Video on 131 DVDs!). If the actors' shticks leave only faint impressions, the art direction by Burton stalwart Rick Heinrichs reliably stamps itself on the imagination, his Collinwood Mansion a masterpiece of ornamental fretwork, octopi chandeliers and hidden passageways.
More than its gothic tropes, Burton's Dark Shadows is committed to fish-out-of-water material — culture-clash humor that rummages through the collective thrift-store memory of the '70s. The film's best moment features a cameo-ing Alice Cooper, performing "The Ballad of Dwight Fry," tying together Barnabas and Cooper as kindred icons of heroic, morose theatricality against square "silent majority"–era America.
More frequently, this Dark Shadows relies on slow-pitch, wasn't-the-past-dumb humor: The 1970s are lampooned for macramé art and inane pothead conversation, Love Story and lava lamps and the Steve Miller Band. The 1770s are held to ridicule through Barnabas's florid language, Romantic agony, and droit du seigneur chauvinism. Significantly, the screenplay is by Seth Grahame-Smith, author of "mash-up" novels including Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, soon to be a major motion picture produced by Burton, with a novelty concept whose bestseller popularity proves that our creatively anemic present ain't none too smart neither.
In the midst of all this is an unusually dandy bit of dress up from Depp, weaving his elongated Nosferatu fingers through the air, recalling an exchange in 1994's Ed Wood. ("Bela, how do you do that?" "You must be double-jointed. And you must be Hungarian.") Wood is still by far Depp and Burton's best collaboration, exhibiting the balance of tone between kitsch parody and zealous fantasy that's missing in Dark Shadows, less a resurrection than a clumsy desecration.