For a good while, Dark Shadows — Tim Burton’s big-budget reinvention of the late-1960s gothic TV soap opera — gets your hopes up. The film opens at a brisk, sweeping pace: In 1772, a spurned witch turns the aristocrat Barnabas into a vampire and seals him in a tomb, so he will suffer forever for not loving her. Two hundred years later, he is accidentally freed and is forced to adjust to the 1972 era of love-ins, hippies and red lava lamps (to him, they look like “pulsating blood urns.”)
Johnny Depp plays Barnabas with an amusing mixture of curious befuddlement — he’s intrigued by everything, even paved roads — and a quiet, polite menace (“It is with sincere regret that I must now kill all of you,” he apologizes to the affable stoners who are about to become his dinner). Depp sports a death-pallor complexion and supernaturally long, creepy fingers, but his face isn’t buried under elaborate makeup, so you can enjoy his not-quite-campy performance (he does so much with his eyes).
Burton, a director who is often so distracted by the art design of his movies that he forgets to tell a story, initially keeps Dark Shadows grounded and modest. The special effects are subtle (even the opening credits are surprisingly plain, like a TV movie) and the cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie) is gorgeously somber. The jokes are witty and rely on word play as much as visual gags. As Barnabas acquaints himself with the family who now lives in his former mansion — including the matriarch Angela (Michelle Pfeiffer), her rebellious daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz) and a psychiatrist (Helena Bonham Carter) — Dark Shadows seems to be building toward a wonderfully sinister comedy of manners. Here, finally, you think, is a Depp-Burton movie worthy of Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, their first and still best collaborations.
And then the wheels come off and the film falls to pieces. Depp and Burton are two gifted, like-minded artists whose affinity for oddball characters and humor makes them natural creative partners. But they also enable each other’s laziest, most indulgent habits: Too often, they seem to be making movies to entertain themselves instead of the audience. Dark Shadows isn’t as dull as Alice in Wonderland or as inert as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but this one hurts more than those did because the potential was so great.
As Angelique, the ageless witch driven mad by her unrequited love, Eva Green is seductive and sexy and serpentine: She’s stunningly beautiful, but she’s also dangerous, and when she gets angry her beautiful complexion cracks like porcelain. You keep waiting for the script by Seth Grahame-Smith (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) to do something with the character more other than using her as the villain who must be vanquished. When Angelique gets to have a bit of fun in the sack with Barnabas, their sexy rumpus (scored to Barry White) demolishes an entire room. The scene is funny, but it doesn’t pay off or lead to anything. Green isn’t playing a character: She’s just a foil for Depp.
The same goes for Pfeiffer, who is criminally wasted, and Moretz, who seems destined for stardom, and even Carter, who makes the most of her brief screen time in a rare (for her) turn as a relatively sane woman. By the time Dark Shadows reaches its ridiculous, CGI-laden climax, the movie has tromped on all its subtle pleasures in pursuit of special effects and explosions and fake-looking monsters. Like Alice in Wonderland, the movie seems destined to be a box office hit. And Burton and Depp will descend even further down their rabbit hole, no doubt coming up with another hoary property to plunder and modernize for their own amusement instead of coming up with something new and fresh and fun. Too bad for them, and too bad for us.
Cast: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green, Chloë Grace Moretz, Jackie Earle Haley, Helena Bonham Carter, Jonny Lee Miller, Alice Cooper.
Director: Tim Burton.
Screenwriter: Seth Grahame-Smith. Based on the television series by Dan Curtis.
Producer: Christi Dembrowski, Johnny Depp, Graham King.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 113 minutes. Vulgar language, bloody violence, sexual situations, adult themes. Opens Friday May 11 at area theaters.