A significant portion 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. Its story revolved around the family life of vampire Barnabas Collins, a figure of purposeful aristocratic bearing and seductive decadence. Shot one-take live-to-tape, with all the attendant imperfections of blown lines, wobbling candelabras and uncooperative stage doors, the show can be reduced to camp, merely the sum of its shoddy elements — but it also provided a generation of young Americans a glamorously gloomy antidote to the mainstream televised entertainment of the day.
Burton standby Johnny Depp fills the Barnabas role in this new film version, which begins with a prologue 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. 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.
The bulk of Dark Shadows takes place in 1972, after Barnabas has been accidentally exhumed. 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); 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 (also played by Heathcote). 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, few of whom have time to make much of an impression. 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 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.
More frequently, this Dark Shadows relies on slow-pitch, wasn't-the-past-dumb humor: The 1970s are lampooned for macramé art and inane pothead conversation. The 1770s are held to ridicule through Barnabas' florid language, Romantic agony, and chauvinism. The screenplay is by Seth Grahame-Smith, author of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, whose popularity proves that our creatively anemic present ain't none too smart neither.