Even in our dimmest memories of the original “Dark Shadows” TV show, the reluctant vampire Barnabas Collins stands out. He wasn’t a major player at first, but he had a way of chomping at the imagination and not letting go.
Now it should be no surprise to find him in the form of Johnny Depp, who shines, albeit pallidly, in Tim Burton’s over-the-top take on the late-’60s supernatural soap. Nor should it shock us to find the literary-mashup maestro Seth Grahame-Smith, also of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” and of course “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” stuffing this fish-out-of-water fable into an occasionally hilarious but highly uneven script.
Returning in 1972 after two entombed centuries to his coastal Maine homestead, and to an amorous feud with a jealous spurned witch (Eva Green), Depp’s blue-blooded bloodsucker yearns for his true love (Bella Heathcote), befriends his baffled descendants (Michelle Pfeiffer, Jonny Lee Miller, Chloë Grace Moretz, Gulliver McGrath), and piques the interest of their in-house shrink (Helena Bonham Carter). Also, and with regrets, he kills some folks — a crew of construction workers here, a herd of hippies there — but only because he must.
Most of these people, including Depp, tend to regard Barnabas with varying degrees of wised-up apprehension. Early on we detect a potential epitome of the subgenre — that gentle, goofy depravity — that Burton and Depp have built together, as if the likes of “Edward Scissorhands” and “Ed Wood,” partly inspired by the “Dark Shadows” show in the first place, had just been rehearsals for this. But what is this, exactly? The highest possible camp in the lowest possible key? Something striking, at any rate, full of fine timing and decorous visual touches and ultimately about as superficial as a detailed doodle in some morbidly precocious loner-schoolboy’s notebook. Great!
Right, but from here it doesn’t go so well, instead becoming overburdened by some mysterious and arbitrary-seeming obligation: to plot, or to summer-movie spectacle, or to the artfully sallow Burton-Depp subgenre itself, who knows? The movie gets out of control and gradually degenerates — which is sort of what we’d hope for, except not like this. It can’t keep it’s own straight face, and without that why bother?
Given such an exquisite collaboration between cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and production designer Rick Heinrichs, it’s hard to begrudge Burton’s transcendence of the show’s semi-shoddy, no-budget aesthetic. More problematic is that the movie’s climactic contrivance and giddy overacting don’t agree with everyone else in its cast, which also includes Jackie Earle Haley, as the nitwit Collins mansion caretaker, and Alice Cooper as himself.
Soon enough, the real fish out of water seems to be the director, clouding up his own camp-gothic clarity and rampaging through the material like a tired, tiresome, word-slurring drunk. Actual pathos might have been possible here, but all the packaging seems preemptively to have suffocated it. Some of Burton’s most devoted fans, and the show’s, will feel sharply betrayed. But it is just a movie, after all, adapted from just another promiscuously malleable piece of TV.
Anyway, Depp’s soulful deadpan does go a very long way — his Barnabas gives off a certain adorably hapless hauteur, like a cat forced to wear a Halloween costume — but this time it’s just not enough for immortality.