Go back and watch a few episodes of the sprawling supernatural soap opera “Dark Shadows,” and it's hard to imagine a more fitting moviemaking team than Tim Burton and Johnny Depp to give the TV cult favorite a big-budget cinematic remake.
With their gothic sensibilities, eccentric humor and obvious affection for the source material, the frequent collaborators bring much more fun and passion to their eighth project than they did to their seventh, 2010's lackluster reimaging of “Alice in Wonderful,” a colorful but surprisingly joyless box-office blockbuster that undoubtedly helped “Dark Shadows” get the green light.
The long-running TV series — more than 1,200 episodes aired on daytime television from 1966-71 — has mostly been forgotten in the mainstream collective consciousness, but its die-hard devotees shouldn't despair based on the movie's trailers, which highlight the Burton-Depp trademark oddball hilarity and little else. Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (who wrote the book and upcoming movie “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”) create a reasonable facsimile of the show's ever-changing tone, successfully shifting from suspense and melodrama to horror and the newly added elements of fish-out-of-water humor over the course of the film.
Creating a vampire
The movie begins with a flashback to 1750, as a wealthy couple from England and their young son Barnabas immigrate to the New World and build a fishing empire in the scenic coastal Maine town that eventually takes their name and becomes known as Collinsport.
Barnabas Collins (Depp) grows up into the town Lothario, which gets him ensnared in a love triangle between his ethereal beloved Josette (Bella Heathcote) and sultry servant girl Angelique (Eva Green). Barnabas chooses Josette over Angelique without knowing that the latter is literally a hateful witch. Angelique takes an “if I can't have him no one can” attitude to the news, cruelly transforming Barnabas into a vampire, casting a deadly spell on Josette and inciting the town to bury Barnabas alive in a chain-wrapped steel coffin.
Two centuries later, a team of unfortunate construction workers unwittingly frees the extraordinarily thirsty Barnabas, who is shocked to re-emerge in the strange new world of 1972.
Some vestiges of the Collins family remain in Collinsport, but Barnabas is dismayed to find that their grand estate has fallen into disrepair, just as their fishing business has fallen on hard times. He puts the boozy caretaker Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley) in his thrall and reveals his vampiric nature to the clan's stalwart matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer).
But they decide to keep Barnabas' supernatural qualities a secret from the rest of the family, leaving Elizabeth's skirt-chasing, spendthrift brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), her rebellious teenage daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), Roger's grieving, ghost-seeing son David (Gully McGrath) and alcoholic live-in psychologist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) puzzling over the long-lost relative's anachronistic speech and bizarre reactions to cars, lava lamps and the TV set.
When Barnabas announces his plans to restore the family name, empire and mansion to its former glory, he learns he has stiff competition in the fishing industry from sexy and savvy businesswoman Angie, who is actually the well-preserved and still-testy Angelique in disguise. While Angie hopes to finally have Barnabas for her own, she is thwarted with the arrival of David's new nanny, Victoria, who bears a startlingly resemblance to Josette.
The other players
The film also features cameos from frequent Burton star Christopher Lee, rocker Alice Cooper and original “Dark Shadows” actors Lara Parker, Kathryn Leigh Scott, David Selby and the late Jonathan Frid, who died last month.
While the movie navigates the constantly morphing tone, Burton and Grahame-Smith have considerably less success managing the unwieldy number of characters and storytelling possibilities from the long-running series. Depp does his usual excellent job embodying a charming, oddball rogue and Green eagerly gobbles up scenery as the wicked witch, but the movie doesn't invest enough time in the rest of the characters for their fine players to make significant impressions. The plot itself lacks focus and could stand a half-hour trim.
— Brandy McDonnell
Starring: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jonny Lee Miller, Bella Heathcote, Jackie Earle Haley and Helena Bonham Carter. (Comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking)