They don’t call it “Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows,” but they might as well have.
Nominally based on the cult favorite 1960s daytime soap opera, this film has much more to do with what goes on inside director Tim Burton’s head than with any TV show, no matter how beloved. In fact, “Dark Shadows” is as good an example as any of what might be called the Way of Tim, a style of making films that, like the drinking of blood, is very much an acquired taste and, unless you’re a vampire, not worth the effort.
Blood, of course, figures prominently in both the original “Dark Shadows,"which ran on ABC for 1,225 episodes between 1966 and 1971, and this new version, for both focus on the character of Barnabas Collins, an 18th century vampire who reappears in today’s world. Back in the day, having a contemporary vampire on a daytime soap was unheard of, and “Dark Shadows” soon developed a devoted following that extended into reruns, including two youngsters who grew up to wield great power in Hollywood, filmmaker Burton and his frequent star, Johnny Depp.
With Depp onboard as Collins, the director was free to construct his own version of “Dark Shadows,” which plays much more fang in cheek, so to speak, than the more straight-ahead original. As a result, the film turns out to be an uncertain combination of elements that unsuccessfully tries to be half-scary, half-funny and all strange, a project that offers examples of the three Ws that make up the Way of Tim.
The first W, is, as always, wonderful production design, which comes courtesy of Burton’s longtime collaborator Rick Heinrichs, who won an Oscar for his work on the director’s “Sleepy Hollow.” Heinrichs has two worlds to deal with in the Seth Grahame-Smith script, starting with the rocky seacoast of Maine in the 1770s. Here resides the Collins family, grown great on the wealth fishing provides, who’ve founded the town of Collinsport and who live in a looming mansion called Collinswood Manor.
The Collinses’ only son Barnabas (Depp) is something of a ladies’ man, but when he toys with the affections of servant Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) he finds he literally has hell to pay. For Angelique is a practicing witch who brings a bleak end to Barnabas’ love for Josette DuPres (Bella Heathcote) and turns the man himself into a vampire. Then, just to rub it in, she has him buried alive “so that his suffering would never end.” Ouch.
Eternity doesn’t last as long as it used to, and a mere 200 years have passed when some unwary and unfortunate construction workers unearth Barnabas’ coffin and set him free. “You can’t imagine,” he says after he’s done his worst, “how thirsty I am....”
Barnabas soon makes his way to Collinswood Manor, where he’s passed off to the locals as a distant relative visiting from England. Very distant. The only person Barnabas freely takes into his confidence is the lady of the manor, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (a welcome part for Michelle Pfeiffer, another youthful devotee of the TV series). Together they plot to return the Collins family to prominence.
Standing in their way is the latest incarnation of Angelique, the ageless witch of yore who still lives in the area and runs a fish company called Angel Bay. Similarly, a young governess named Victoria Winters who’s employed at Collinswood Manor is an incarnation of Barnabas’ old love Josette. And so it goes.
Helping to make all this folderol initially palatable is the second W of the Way of Tim, a certifiably weird performance by Depp, who likes nothing better than to disappear into the odd creatures that his director creates for his delectation. Burton and Depp have worked together so often — this is their eighth collaboration — that they are in danger of becoming a mondo bizarro version of John Ford and John Wayne. Still, Depp’s performance is so unwavering in its commitment to eccentricity that it is hard not to be fitfully entertained.
Depp amuses himself and others as a man out of time, a priggish, somewhat effete individual who is astounded at his first glimpse of television (“Reveal yourself, tiny songstress,” he says to singers on the screen) and, as many dieters have before him, mistakes the M in a huge McDonald’s sign for the entrance to hell.
But as engaging as Depp can be, he and the rest of the ensemble (which includes Helena Bonham Carter, Chloe Grace Moretz and Jackie Earle Haley) are tripped up by the third W, which is Burton’s woeful lack of concern with story and drama.
A director of moments rather than wholes, Burton is prone to wander off point and engage with peripheral concerns (like a pointless concert cameo by Alice Cooper) rather than such pedestrian matters as plot coherence. “Dark Shadows” is all over the place, getting more grotesque and less involving the longer it goes on, and that, as even the undead would admit, is a damned shame.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes
Playing: In general release