Dark Shadows, director Tim Burton's take on the 1966-71 gothic soap opera that remains a cult favorite, is gently satirical and totally watchable, and filled with inventive fringe touches. Led by Johnny Depp, its cast features a bunch of terrific comedians - a number of whom don't often get the chance to be comedians - and the visuals are thoroughly impressive. All told, it's probably Burton's best film, and certainly his best live-action film, in more than a decade. So why, in the end, doesn't all of that mean more than it actually does?
Is it possible that we, or at least I, have been down this road with Burton a few times too many? Because all throughout Dark Shadows, even while I was enjoying it, I couldn't escape the feeling that I was watching a remake - but not a remake of the ABC series. Instead, the movie comes off like a random, greatest-hits commingling of moments from the director's oeuvre: some Edward Scissorhands here, some Sleepy Hollow there, Beetlejuice throughout. And while that shouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, there's so little energy in its presentation that the film's gentle, mellow vibe becomes tiring awfully early. Despite its occasional flashes of fire, it's a movie you frequently want to slap just to keep it - and yourself - awake.
Happily, Depp is in fine form, even though the actor's Barnabus Collins - an 18th Century New Englander-turned-vampire - is his own kind of Burton-movie amalgam. The victim of a wicked spell cast by the spurned witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), Collins emerges from a 200-year underground imprisonment to find his family's mansion now populated by oddball descendants: the glowering matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer); her sullen teenage daughter (Chloë Grace Moretz); her untrustworthy brother (Jonny Lee Miller); and her motherless nephew (Gully McGrath). With only Elizabeth aware of her relative's vampirism - despite a ghostlike pallor, sunken eyes, and bony, long-nailed fingers that should be sounding warning bells all over the manse - Barnabus decides to reinvigorate the Collins' failed fishery, a local operation destroyed by the still-youthful (and still intensely pissed-off) business rival Angelique. Throw in Helena Bonham Carter as a booze-swilling child psychologist, Jackie Earle Haley as an equally besotted groundskeeper, Bella Heathcote as a governess bearing an uncanny resemblance to Collins' deceased love from 1776, and Karen Carpenter on the soundtrack, and you'd seem to have all the makings for a somewhat ghoulish, mostly campy horror comedy graced with Burton's famously eccentric flourishes.
Sadly, the makings are what we're still left with by the movie's end. Yet that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of wonderfully winning throwaway touches along the way, many of the best coming from Depp, whose elegance and courtly, dry-comic readings suggest the blood-sucking spawn of his elegant priss from Sleepy Hollow and his vicious barber Sweeney Todd. (In another, particularly satisfying bit of Burton-film reminiscence, Depp gets the chance to perform the Transylvania-hypnotism technique that Martin Landau's Bela Lugosi showed off in Ed Wood.) By this point in their longtime cinematic partnership - Dark Shadows marks the actor's and director's eighth collaboration to date - I'm not sure Depp is capable of genuinely surprising us anymore; we expect weird and droll, and we get weird and droll. But while you may feel you've seen this performance before, it remains an effective one, and Depp is especially great whenever Barnabus finds himself awestruck by 1972 America, mistaking a gleaming McDonald's sign for Mephistopheles and marveling at the miniature chanteuse trapped in that box in the living room.
I do wish that screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith had written more comically varied roles for Miller and Moretz; the preternaturally accomplished young actress, here, is basically Beetlejuice's Winona Ryder without the exuberant calypso number. But Carter, at least in her early scenes, is a witheringly incredulous hoot, and Pfeiffer is slyly, mordantly hilarious whenever the script allows her to be, Elizabeth's slight pauses before comebacks suggesting the funnier, more mean-spirited replies she's uttering in her head. (I was going to add that any opportunity to catch the radiant, too-rarely-seen Pfeiffer on-screen these days is a worthwhile one, but then I remembered New Year's Eve.) And sporting a malevolent, 1,000-kilowatt grin that seems to literally run ear to ear, Green is so spectacularly, hysterically voracious that she easily walks off with the picture. By Dark Shadows' finale, she's pretty much gobbled up by the visual effects (exceptional and evocative though they are), yet Green's emergence as a sexy, fearlessly neurotic comedienne in the vein of Judy Davis is a thrill to behold, and stands as the film's one truly unexpected grace note.
If only there were more of them. Unfortunately, the central, thwarted romance-through-the-ages between Barnabus and Heathcote's Victoria Winters is mostly uninteresting (and not aided by the actress' blow-up-doll vacuity in the role), and there's little presentational urgency or momentum even in the movie's more outlandish sequences, with Burton's slapstick-lovemaking scene running on far too long for the lame punchline it's been given. All told, there's not much that seems to link one moment to the next here beyond the expectedly exquisite design and general airs of self-amusement and self-consciousness. And while it's mostly fun on a scene-by-scene basis - and, God knows, a huge improvement on the director's previous outing, Alice in Wonderland - Burton's latest leaves you feeling underwhelmed, and even a little empty. Dark Shadows is a comedy about the undead, and despite its considerable and numerous minor pleasures, it oftentimes feels like the undead.