Long before there was True Blood, or Twilight, or even The Vampire Lestat, there was Barnabas Collins—the first of the sympathetic mainstream vampires, a bloodsucker with a flair for human-style melodrama and a devotion to family that made him, well, admirable. And he had his own franchise, and that the franchise was a soap opera (1966 to 1971) just added to the vampire’s ludicrous power of pop-culture seduction. Among the generation of kids who ran home after school everyday to tune in to Dark Shadows (a sort of As the Underworld Turns for underage viewers) were director Tim Burton, star Johnny Depp, and co-star Michelle Pfeiffer, who came together in cult-devotion onset for Dark Shadows, Burton’s big-screen homage to the undead soap.
An unintentional camp classic with fantastically atmospheric art direction (filmed at Lyndhurst mansion in downstate New York), the unholy saga of the TV Collins family would seem to be a promising breeding ground for Burton and his over-the-top, whimsically gothic visual sensibilities. And sometimes it is, especially when Barnabas (Depp) tries to adjust his mid-1700s mindset, with its aristocratic and romantic sweep, its cursed blood lust, and supernatural superiority, to the post-hippie, laid-back vibe of 1972.
Freed from bondage by a construction crew, Barnabas finds his way to his old estate of Collinswood, where his dysfunctional descendents are in need of his protection.
Some of the best lines—because yes, this is a comedy, and despite some attacks of mass murder, it’s not the tiniest bit frightening—occur between Barnabas and teenage Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moritz, amusingly surly), who finds his anachronistic behavior even more pathetic than the passivity of her mother, Elizabeth (Pfeiffer), or the uselessness of the dipsomaniacal family shrink, Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter).
Actually, the family dynamics are clever enough that it’s kind of drag that Barnabas has to do modern-day battle—meaning business skullduggery—against his immortal nemesis, Angelique (Eva Green), a witch who is still in lust with the Barnabas she knew centuries ago. If you’ve seen the trailer, then you know that this clash of occult characters degenerates to Angelique spewing projectile green vomit during a hissy fit while Barnabas reacts with a disappointing absence of the heavily cloaked viciousness of the original. Though wonderfully witty, Depp is about as menacing as Count Chocula.
More time should’ve been spent with the troubled Collins heir, young David (Gulliver McGrath), or the creepy groundskeeper (Jackie Earle Haley, nicely deadpan), or with anyone who isn’t boring Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), the reincarnated image of Barnabas’ beloved Josette, and the reason for Angelique’s supposedly diabolical revenge scheme. Just as Burton’s Alice in Wonderland gave way to a special-effects extravaganza that had little to do with the story, so does Dark Shadows, only with much less inventive effects.