Dark Shadows: Johnny Depp As Vampire Family Man

Much of Tim Burton's output over the past decade has been concerned with slipping the "Burton treatment" to susceptible texts: Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland — and now, Dark Shadows.

A supernaturally themed daily daytime soap, Dark Shadows aired on ABC from 1966 to 1971, ruling the after-school time slot. Its story revolved around the family life of vampire Barnabas Collins, a figure of purposeful aristocratic bearing and seductive decadence.

Burton standby Johnny Depp fills the Barnabas role in the new film version, which begins with a prologue, narrated in a grave rumble by Depp, that reveals the origin of the Collins curse. Leaving Liverpool, a still-mortal Barnabas arrives with his parents in Colonial-era Maine, where they build a commercial empire and establish the family seat, Collinwood Mansion. As a young man, Barnabas is torn between profane and sacred loves — with lowly servant Angelique (Eva Green) and hypergamous fiancée, Josette (Bella Heathcote), respectively — and winds up with neither, for the spurned Angelique practices black magic, hexing Josette to death and Barnabas to endless suffering as a vampire, imprisoned in a chained-up coffin and buried (eternally) alive.

The bulk of Dark Shadows takes place in 1972, after Barnabas has been accidentally exhumed. Dazzled by paved roads and McDonald's, Barnabas arrives at a half-ruined Collinwood to take his place at the head of what remains of his family — matriarch and distant cousin, Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer); her son and useless heir, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller); his teenage sister, Carolyn (Chloë Moretz); and Roger's troubled motherless child, David (Gulliver McGrath), haunted by Mommy's ghost. To deal with David's issues, two additional members of the household have been acquired: psychiatrist Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) and governess Victoria, a spitting image of Barnabas' lost love. A less-welcome familiar face is the magnate who has ruined the Collins' fame and fortune through the decades — none other than the eternal Angelique.

This is a platoon of a cast, and if the actors' shticks leave only faint impressions, the art direction by Burton stalwart Rick Heinrichs reliably stamps itself on the imagination, his Collinwood Mansion a masterpiece of ornamental fretwork, octopi chandeliers, and hidden passageways.

More than its gothic tropes, though, Burton's Dark Shadows is committed to fish-out-of-water material — culture-clash humor that rummages through the collective thrift-store memory of the '70s. The film's best moment features a cameo-ing Alice Cooper, performing "The Ballad of Dwight Fry" in Collinwood's Great Hall, tying together Barnabas and Cooper as kindred icons of heroic, morose theatricality against square "silent majority"-era America.

Dark Shadows relies on wasn't-the-past-dumb humor: The 1970s are lampooned for macramé art and inane pothead conversation, Love Story and lava lamps, and the Steve Miller Band. The 1770s are held to ridicule through Barnabas' florid language, Romantic agony, and droit du seigneur chauvinism. The screenplay is by Seth Grahame-Smith, author of "mash-up" novels including Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, soon to be a motion picture produced by Burton, with a novelty concept whose bestseller popularity proves that our creatively anemic present ain't none too smart, neither.

In the midst of all this is a dandy bit of dress-up from Depp, weaving his elongated Nosferatu fingers through the air, recalling an exchange in 1994's Ed Wood. ("Bela, how do you do that?" "You must be double-jointed. And you must be Hungarian.") Wood is still by far Depp and Burton's best collaboration, exhibiting the balance of tone between kitsch parody and zealous fantasy that's missing in Dark Shadows, less a resurrection than a clumsy desecration.

 
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