Being a Tim Burton movie, the new Dark Shadows is an exercise in the sort of gothic fantabula with which the director’s fans are familiar—perhaps, by now, overly so. It is also the eighth Burton film to star Johnny Depp. This has often been a good thing in the past: Depp’s natural star power is concentrated, in the manner of Harrison Ford, by his rather narrow range, and he’s an immensely likable performer. Here, though, his trademark charm can’t fully animate a movie that, much like the 1999 Sleepy Hollow, tends to wander about in search of a purpose.
The story has been cleanly distilled by Burton vet John August and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith from more than 1200 episodes of the supernatural soap opera that ran on ABC from 1966 to 1971, and lumbered around in syndication for many years thereafter. But the script’s attempted condensation of this meandering tale is frustrated by the necessity of making room for nine lead characters (10, if you count Alice Cooper, who’s brought in for a party sequence to perform his old “Ballad of Dwight Fry” as accompaniment to a shuddery flashback.)
The movie begins with a rich helping of backstory, in which we see that young Barnabas Collins (Depp), scion of a prosperous fish-canning family in 18th century Maine, was turned into a vampire by a jealous servant girl named Angelique (Eva Green), who was enraged by his rejection of her in favor of a dreamy young woman named Josette (Bella Heathcote). Angelique was secretly a witch, and after engineering Josette’s suicide, she saw to it that Barnabas, now an accursed bloodsucker, was buried alive (or undead) in a chained coffin for the next nearly 200 years.
Leaping ahead to 1972, we see Barnabas accidently freed from his subterranean confinement by a construction-crew bulldozer. Disoriented after his long nap, he makes his way to Collinwood, the old family manse, now fallen into disrepair along with the family business, which has been eclipsed by a rival fish cannery run by the immortal Angelique, still on the scene. Barnabas presents himself to the current generation of Collinses: matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer); her sullen teenage daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz); Elizabeth’s wastrel brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller); his neglected son David (Gulliver McGrath); and a live-in psychiatrist named Julia (Helena Bonham Carter), who’s been treating the troubled David. There’s also a new governess named Victoria (Heathcote again), who strongly resembles the long-gone Josette; a shabby family retainer named Willie (Jackie Earle Haley); and an old woman, Mrs. Johnson (Ray Shirley), whose function within the ensemble is minimal.
After adjusting to Barnabas’ eccentric manner and appearance—his plaster-white face, blood-red lips, alarming talons, and seriously out-of-date clothing—the family accepts his offer to return as head of the household and restore the clan to its former prominence. Naturally, the vicious Angelique has no intention of allowing this to happen.
All of the usual Burton signifiers are on display here: the obsessive art design (grandly paneled rooms, hidden chambers, nooks and crannies beyond number) and sometimes glorious digital wonderments (leaden skies heavy with clouds, a magnificently craggy wind-swept cliff). And there are some extraordinary scenes, especially a wild seduction that has Barnabas and Angelique flying around a room and rolling across the ceiling in carnal abandon. There’s fond ‘70s japery throughout, and some snappy dialogue, too. (When Barnabas suggests a departure via the only form of transport he knows, Elizabeth replies, “We don’t have horses—we have a Chevy.”)
But Depp’s intentionally mannered presence—which draws as much from the classic Nosferatu as it does from Jonathan Frid’s original incarnation of Barnabas on TV—leeches energy from the proceedings, which are already cluttered by the script’s anxious need to provide bits of business for each of the many characters. The other actors are admirably committed to the material (Pfeiffer and Carter are particularly funny, and Green smolders with a memorable intensity); but they overmatch the sluggish story. What might have seemed campy fun in a cheapjack TV series is crushed under the weight of a big-budget Hollywood production. Despite the requisite splatterings of blood, the movie is in no way scary. It feels drained.