It makes sense that for Johnny Depp and director Tim Burton to get in on the current vampire craze, they’d have to approach it with a sense of humor. I doubt if many young viewers know that they’ve based their new film on a forty-year-old daytime TV drama, and it scarcely matters. Dark Shadows is an amusing piece of high camp, stoked by Depp’s deadpan star performance and the kind of elaborate trappings one would expect from Burton. (His longtime production designer, Rick Heinrichs, has done another beautiful job with both real and virtual sets.)
The story begins in the 1700s, when the Collins family leaves Liverpool for the New World and settles in Maine, where Joshua Collins builds a thriving business, establishes a seaport town, and constructs a majestic family mansion. But one of the household servants (Green) turns out to be a witch, and when Barnabas (Depp) shuns her in favor of another woman, she unleashes a curse on the Collins clan and turns the young playboy into a vampire who is then buried alive. The story picks up two hundred years later—in 1972, as Barnabas rises from his grave and tries to restore his family’s tarnished glory.
If you’re hoping for big, Addams Family-style laughs, however, you may come away disappointed. There isn’t much substance here, and once you absorb the tone of the film and acquaint yourself with its colorful characters, the movie has no big surprises in store. I was satisfied to watch Depp and sexy Eva Green bare their fangs, so to speak, and I enjoyed Helena Bonham Carter’s scenes as a slightly unhinged psychiatrist-in-residence, even if other cast members like Chloë Grace Moretz and Jackie Earle Haley have little to do. Michelle Pfeiffer is reduced to playing straight-man, as the family matriarch, but she does it well. And, of course, it’s nice to see 89-year-old Christopher Lee in his one scene as an old sea salt.
Longtime fans of Dan Curtis’ memorable daytime drama may be dismayed at this sendup, but at least they’ll catch a glimpse of the show’s original stars (Kathryn Leigh Scott, David Selby, Lara Parker, and the late Jonathan Frid) as guests at a fancy-dress ball where Alice Cooper entertains.
So, as usual, how much pleasure you derive from Dark Shadows will have a lot to do with your expectations. It’s not great, by any measure, but I found it diverting, and I’ll confess that I didn’t mind watching the notably beautiful women in its cast.