In “Dark Shadows,” Tim Burton exhumes the Dan Curtis gothic soap opera of the same name, which ran five days a week from 1966-1971. Not surprisingly, Burton's frequent collaborator Johnny Depp takes over the role of vampire Barnabas Collins. (Jonathan Frid — who played Barnabas in over a thousand episodes of the TV show and who died just a few weeks ago — can be spotted in the film as a guest entering a gala ball.)
Curtis also made two features from the material: Burton's film cleaves fairly closely to the plot of 1970's “House of Dark Shadows,” the first of these. In the late 1700s, Barnabas is cursed by witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), whose affections he has spurned. After she makes his beloved (Bella Heathcote) jump off a cliff, she turns Barnabas into a vampire, and then has him buried alive.
Two hundred years later, accidentally unearthed, he returns to the family estate, Collinwood, pretending to be a distant cousin. He finds the family business on the verge of going bust, thanks to ruthless local competitor “Angie” — who is, of course, Angelique, also an immortal. He also finds the pathetic remnants of the Collins household: matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her sullen daughter (Chloe Grace Moretz), wastrel Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), his troubled 10-year-old son (Gully McGrath), a drunken live-in psychiatrist (Helena Bonham Carter), and a nanny (Heathcote again) who happens to look exactly like his late fiancee. Barnabas uses his vampiric powers in an attempt to fight Angie and restore the family's fortunes.
The TV show came and went during the only TV-less period of my life, so my sole exposure to the “Dark Shadows” phenomenon was the Top 30 recording of “Quentin's Theme”; for the uninitiated, the success of this snatch of dippy carousel music was beyond understanding. Apparently, the show was played for horror, not for laughs, which may make Burton's film more fun for us still uninitiated types than for longtime fans with an attachment to the original tone.
Indeed, the new “Dark Shadows” is at least 50 percent comedy. Much of the humor is based on anachronism: mostly Barnabas's constant misreading of “modern” — i.e., 1972 — culture and technology. Confronted with the image of the Carpenters on television, he attacks the set, proclaiming, “Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!” When Moretz's cranky adolescent tells him her age, his reaction is “Fifteen and no husband? You must put those fertile child-bearing hips to good use!”
But the jokes also exploit our own displacement in time. From a 21st-century perspective, ‘70s style makes a particularly easy target for mockery. Modern audiences are likely to be as mystified by — and condescending about — the once-popular plastic troll figurines as Barnabas is.
Given that the vampire myth has been presented in so many different variants in this era of “Twilight” and “True Blood,” it's understandable that even Burton and Depp can't bring all that much new to the genre. Depp is almost so perfectly cast that there's not much room for surprise. But, for those not attached to the TV show, there is still enough cleverness to provide an evening's diversion.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times