Dark Shadows, the old ABC gothic soap opera, is such natural material for Tim Burton and Johnny Depp that you almost wonder why they bothered. Of all the movies and TV shows to remake, it’s perhaps the most logical choice for the men who brought us Beetlejuice and Captain Jack Sparrow, respectively, not to mention Edward Scissorhands and other offbeat luminaries in their partnership.
Lighthearted macabre quirk is the tandem’s specialty and the primary operating mode of their new movie, a visually-pleasing haunted house/vampire comedy. But even if Dark Shadows is a case of safe, smooth sailing for its makers, it’s still far more spirited and thoughtfully made than most summer movie counterparts.
And it boasts a great Depp performance. The actor long ago stopped playing actual people (save for the occasional historic figure), but in the realm of exaggerated Depp archetypes, the 200-year-old vampire Barnabas Collins stands out. The actor affects a sly, stilted delivery, conveying a proper 18th century gentleman with a pronounced sinister side that’s both sanitized and threatening. The actor’s flawless comic timing and all-around refusal to descend into the trap of all-out weirdness that has derailed him are big reasons the film maintains its humorous edge.
Barnabas is transformed into a flesh eater and chained and buried inside a coffin by the witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), who harbors an unending, unreturned passion for our hero. The eldest Collins awakes in 1972 to find his descendants horrifically down on their luck. The family fishing business is under attack from the immortal Angelique’s competing company and the beloved Collins mansion has fallen into considerable disrepair.
Also starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Helena Bonham Carter, Dark Shadows offers more than cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s sharp wide shots of the Collins estate and evocative images of the protagonist literally overwhelmed by the foreign setting, as when a McDonald’s sign looms over him. There’s more to it than the picture-perfect ’70s pastiche, as well. Before petering out in standard supernatural action movie territory, the film offers a funny and, dare I say it, original take on the “fish out of water” conceit, with several scenes – including one in which Barnabus meets some hippies – crafted for maximum comic effect.
At the end of the day, though, the movie is an adaptation of an old, antiquated TV show that feels fresh and alive in large part because of its star. Depp and Burton are so simpatico after multiple collaborations that the actor’s quirky shtick fits perfectly into the overall broad, vaguely off-kilter vision. Depp imbues Barnabas with smarts and pathos, turning him into the world’s most self-aware vampire.
Few actors could offer a comparably empathetic take on a centuries-old protagonist grappling with the conventions of an era that’s significantly different, and infinitely more confusing, than his own. There’s just the right mix of out-of-touch confusion and adaptability in Depp’s work. Dark Shadows doesn’t work if the actor isn’t there, selling us on the heart of Barnabas’ struggle.
The Upside: Johnny Depp is hilarious and the movie represents a return to lighthearted comic-horror iconography for director Tim Burton.
The Downside: The actual plot is boring and the last third of the movie turns serious and repetitive.
On the Side: Depp and Burton have worked together on seven other movies: Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, The Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Alice in Wonderland.