The best thing about Tim Burton is his distinct, recognizable style. Incidentally, it’s also the worst thing about him. You can spot a Tim Burton film from a mile away, with its Gothic overtones and offbeat blend of modern pop culture iconography and horror icons. “Dark Shadows” continues this sad trend of decay as Tim Burton pulls the same shots in exactly the same procedure. It does nothing horribly wrong, but it does nothing new or exciting either.
Johnny Depp plays Barnabas Collins, a mid-18th century nobleman transformed into a vampire by a spurned servant-witch (Eva Green). He narrates his back-story in the first 10 minutes, detailing the tragic deaths of his family and lover, as well as his confinement to a coffin for 200 years. He resurfaces in 1972, long after his family — who live in a Massachusetts seaport named after them — has declined in status.
Only four members of the Collins family remain: Elizabeth, the rigid-minded matriarch (Michelle Pfeiffer), her brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), perpetually stoned and angsty teen Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz) and a sickly, superstitious son (Gulliver McGrath), who is tended to by a feminist psychiatrist (Helena Bonham Carter) and demure governess (Bella Heathcote). They form a mini-Addams Family at Collinwood Manor, wrapped in the macabre and ghostly even before Barnabas returns to pull his family out of the ashes.
It all boils down to your basic “fish out of water/lost in time” shtick as Barnabas adjusts to cars, fast food, and the Hollywood version of a hippy culture. The fact that these 1960s icons are rendered anachronisms in 1972 never occurs to the film, which has little to say about its setting and time period anyway. It’s just an excuse to quote Steve Miller and include an Alice Cooper cameo.
Tidbits of melodrama and family intrigue, remnants of the soap opera “Dark Shadows” is based on, crop up amidst the “comedy,” creating some semblance of a deeper narrative. The witch that cursed Barnabas is also alive in 1972, in charge of a competing business that has overpowered the Collins’ company and taken over their namesake town. As he rallies his family to fight back, Barnabas also pursues the governess, Victoria, who resembles his dead amour. It’s not the slightest bit enthralling, thanks to both a lifeless performance by Bella Heathcote and Johnny Depp’s grandstanding, which leaves no room for the other actors to build chemistry and create any drama. One ends up waiting the whole film for excitement to kick in. It never does.
You’ve seen this film before as “Edward Scissorhands,” where the anachronistic whimsy of a Frankenstein monster exploring suburbia warmed more hearts than “Dark Shadows” can hope to. You’ve even seen it as “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and “Encino Man,” both of which had lower standards but were unashamed to be juvenile and kid themselves. “Dark Shadows” loses itself between drama and comedy, under-delivering on both. It’s another day at the office for Tim Burton, and he has been treading water so long I fear we have forever lost the radical auteur who gave us “Beetlejuice,” “Batman Returns” and “Ed Wood.”