“Dark Shadows” tries to sink its teeth into the legendary 1960’s supernatural soap opera with both ironic distance and visceral thrills. It can be done — see the original “Men in Black” — but wonderfully weird visuals from director Tim Burton and a highly watchable performance by his muse, Johnny Depp cannot keep the tone from faltering and the results are unsatisfying. One big problem is a criminally underused cast. Eva Green matches Depp as Angelique, the woman scorned whose witchcraft turns the young heir Barnabas Collins into a vampire and curses all of the Collins family forevermore. But Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Lee Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, and Chloe Grace Moretz (“Hugo,” “Kick-Ass”) have little to do but pose in Colleen Atwood’s fabulous 70’s costumes. Co-scripter Seth Grahame-Smith, whose genre mash-ups include Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) has produced a script that does not work as tribute or update.
Barnabas Collins was the young son of a wealthy family who came to America in the 1770’s and settled in a 200-room mansion on a cliff near a Maine fishing town. Angelique (Green), the daughter of a servant, loved Barnabas or, more likely, she loved his wealth, position, and power. When he told her he could not love her, she unleashed her witchy revenge. She enchanted Josette (Bella Heathcote), the girl Barnabas loved, so that she committed suicide by jumping off the cliff. When Barnabas tried to follow her, Angelique turned him into a vampire who could not die.
Barnabas is captured and shut into a coffin for nearly 200 years. When a construction project digs him up, he enters the world of 1972, which is almost as confusing and dysfunctional as his descendants. They are: Elizabeth (Pfeiffer), her louche brother Roger (Miller), her sullen teenage daughter Carolyn (Moretz), and Roger’s “I see dead people” son David (Gulliver McGrath). They live in a partitioned-off wing of Collinwood Mansion with drunken caretaker Willie Loomis (Haley), a dotty housekeeper, and a substance-abusing psychiatrist named Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), who came for a brief time to help David after his mother’s death but stayed for years.
No one believes Barnabas at first, despite a convincing resemblance to the family portrait. But he tells Elizabeth he is there to restore the family to wealth and power and proves his good intentions by leading her to treasure hidden in a secret room and he begins to seem no less believable than the other members of the family. With some vampire version of the Vulcan mind meld, he persuades the local captains to switch from their association with the dynamic woman who controls most of the fishing business in the area. She is none other than Angelique, still going strong and still in the midst of a big love-hate thing with Barnabas. And there is Victoria, a new governess for David, who looks just like Josette (Heathcote again).
Depp is clearly having a blast with his character’s gothic formality of movement and linguistic curlicues and Green has a great triumphant/demonic smile. Whenever they are on screen the movie picks up and their intimate encounter is hilariously room-shaking. Barnabas experiences the wonders of the modern age, including some that we take for granted (paved roads, television) and some that feel as mystifying to us as they do to him. Shag rugs? Lava lamps? But the plot is as creaky as the hinges on Barnabas’ coffin.
Parents should know that the ghoulish plot concerns vampires, ghosts, and witches. While some elements are comic, the film has stylized but graphic horror-style violence, characters injured and killed, sexual references and an explicit comic sex scene, some strong language, smoking, drinking, and drug use.
Family discussion: What were the biggest differences Barnabas found when he returned after 200 years? How was he most like and unlike his relatives?
If you like this, try: Episodes of the original black and white television series and the fantasy film “Stardust”