The years, gray hairs and wrinkles fade away from Johnny Depp and Michelle Pfeiffer, and the cobwebs are brushed off “Dark Shadows” in Tim Burton’s campy and dark take on the late 1960s vampire soap opera. A cheesy and cheap but beloved TV program takes an affectionate ribbing in the film, which has more in common with “That ’70s Show” than its actual source.
But it’s a fun flashback to the days when a jilted witch (former Bond babe Eva Green, in fine fury) cursed the Byron-haired Barnabas Collins (Depp) to eternal damnation as a vampire, his immortality granted “so that my suffering would never end.”
The evil Angelique killed his parents, turned the seaport village of Collinsport against Barnabas and had him entombed. And when he is accidentally awakened in 1972, he discovers that was just the beginning of her revenge.
The descendants (Pfeiffer, Jonny Lee Miller, Chloe Moretz, Gulliver McGrath) are living in the cluttered ruins of Collinwood, their vast mansion. Angelique now dominates the fishing industry that made the Collins clan’s fortune. Tragedy has visited the family on a regular basis. Little David (McGrath) lost his mother, and requires a live-in shrink (Helena Bonham Carter) who is also a pill-popping drunk. And they’re about to hire a governess (Bella Heathcote) who is the spitting image of Josette, the long-lost love of Barnabas Collins. First, though, she has to answer some questions about the leading controversies of the day. What do you think of the president, the war?
“Do you think the sexes should be equal?”
“Heavens no. The men would become unmanageable.”
Depp is wonderfully adept at playing this sort of fish-out-of-water. Barnabas spies the miniskirt of his teenage descendant (Moretz) and wonders why a streetwalker lives among them.
He shouts “Show yourself, Satan” at his first sight of an automobile’s headlights. And there’s a bit of a language barrier.
“Are you stoned, or something?”
“They tried stoning me. It did no woooooork.”
The daffiness extends to Collinwood, where secret passages are now “where I keep my macrame,” matriarch Elizabeth (Pfeiffer) informs him.
Depp and Green set off real sparks as ex-lovers, with Green vamping up her vintage man-eater role and Depp’s Barnabas harrumphing that he will never fall for “a succubus of Satan.”
It’s all done in the name of good, slightly off-color fun. Burton relishes the time-period pop so much that he plays entire songs on the soundtrack, lacing “Nights in White Satin” under the opening credits, The Carpenters, Barry White (the big sex scene, of course), Black Sabbath and Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” under other moments. He brings in Alice Cooper for an extended cameo-concert.
The effects are grand, the settings, shadowy and digitally enhanced for your enjoyment. One bit, having a character turn into an eggshell caricature of herself, is something we’ve never seen before.
But all is not Anne Hathaway-sized grins and tasty one-liners in Collinsport. Heathcote (“In Time”) is woefully out of her depth, faintly mysterious but unable to suggest the passion that Barnabas carried for 200 years in a coffin. Jackie Earle Haley, who takes on the Renfield role in this Dracula parody, is hilarious. But Jonny Lee Miller is wasted, given little to play and thus bringing nothing to the party.
At nearly two hours, this two-joke comedy is entirely too long. But Burton neither dishonors the show nor disappoints generations of fans of that series, people inspired to pass their vampire love on to their children and now grandchildren.
And if nothing else, he is to be commended for the makeup and effects that strip decades away from his older cast members, including Bonham Carter.
“Every year I get half as pretty and twice as drunk,” her character, Dr. Julia Hoffman, complains. In “Dark Shadows,” Burton has made at least half that line a lie.