There’s no doubt Tim Burton was one of the many weird kids whose mind was corrupted by Dark Shadows, the absurdly gothic cult soap opera that ran during the height of the counterculture and the Vietnam War. But the real driving force behind his perhaps inevitable adaptation is Johnny Depp. As a kid Depp so idolized Barnabus Collins—the moody, proper vampire who, as embodied by the recently late Jonathan Frid, took the show by storm in its second season—he thought he was Barnabus Collins. His performance is exactly as “unpredictable” as you’d expect. As the undead scion of a wealthy Maine family unearthed from a 196-year coffin prison stint, he’s a deadpan gargoyle, dancing through his prim mouthful-dialogue with a syrupy English accent.
Burton is also awakened, in at least a groggy state. For a depressingly large portion of his career, the animator-turned-filmmaker has been more brand than artist, tackling projects that constitute a generic notion of what constitutes “Tim Burton-esque.” At the worst the result is his molestation of Alice in Wonderland. Dark Shadows would seem to be another impersonal, generically “odd” Burton outing, but something about the material has summoned the actual Tim Burton—the one who IDs with real strangeness, and not the safe, milquetoast kind he’s been trotting out since the Clinton era.
It’s still rough going. Barnabus’ adventures take him to his now-dilapidated family manse, lorded over by Michelle Pfeiffer, populated by grouchy teen Chloe Moretz and managed, somewhat, by alkie psychiatrist Helena Bonham Carter (of Tim Burton movies). The pitch is that the Collins household is packed with eccentrics, but the script—by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ Seth Grahame-Smith—barely gives them tics, and Burton doesn’t much care about them. Nor is he bothered enough to excise the lame Austin Powers-vampire jokes, where Barnabus is unmoored by 1970s life and repeatedly stumbles into double entendres (e.g., talking about how men love “balls” when he’s talking about parties!).
But there’s a genuine, unresolved weirdness that pulls it through. Barnabus is, after all, a killer, and though his sporadic sprees are handled jokily, there’s something thrilling about trailing a dangerous anti-hero who doesn’t mind chomping on portions of the cast. And while it’s hard to give a toss for Barnabus’ pert, boring love interest (Bella Heathcote), there’s always Eva Green’s Angelique, a vengeful witch responsible for Barnabus’ condition and his family’s ruin. Like Depp, Green finds the right campy tone for this faux-soap, vamping up a storm and striking some of the most wonderfully OTT poses and facial expressions since silent-era cinema. Burton is classically someone who identifies with outsiders, and Dark Shadows works best—and, really, at all—when it hitches its sails to the murderers, villains and other outcasts of its murky world.