Somewhere in the sloping arc of Tim Burton’s career, what was once a sensibility slowly morphed into a brand. That distinctive gothic flair, freed from horror and animated by comedy in great films like Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, has not gone away, nor has his attraction to stories about imaginative outcasts misunderstood by the squares around them. But what’s gone missing in recent years—Sweeney Todd excepted, though Stephen Sondheim had a hand in that—is the spiky wit and purposefulness that used to accompany that unmistakable visual style. There’s no doubt that viewers still know that they’re watching a Tim Burton movie. The question now is why.
Adapted from the long-running gothic soap opera of the same name—though loosely in letter if not also in spirit, as any sane adaptation of a 1,225-episode run would be—Burton’s Dark Shadows combines fish-out-of-water comedy with a love triangle that spans two centuries and threatens to replay itself for all eternity. The two elements require a delicacy of touch, because they’re often at war with each other: Injecting real feeling into an irony-choked camp comedy causes the sort of tonal distress that the old Burton might have resolved. But the Burton of today has a much easier time with the lighter work of thrusting a 200-year-old vampire into the world of shag carpets, lava lamps, and The Carpenters than stirring up emotions that have the weight of time and longstanding romantic feuds embedded in them.
Naturally, Dark Shadows fares best in its first half, when it’s least troubled and can score the most jokes. Opening in 1760, the film quickly dispatches with the tortured mythology of the Collins family, which left for the New World and established itself on a Maine seaport, where it staked such a claim in the seafood business that the town was named Collinsport. Back at Collinwood Manor, their vast estate on a cliff over town, young Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) finds himself the subject of conflicting passions between the vengeful witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) and his true love Josette (Bella Heathcote). In a fit of jealousy, Angelique has Josette toss herself off a cliff and turns Barnabas into a vampire, condemning him to eternal torment in a chained-up coffin buried 6 feet underground.
Cut to 1972, when the story threatens to play itself out again. Victoria Winters (also played by Heathcote), Josette’s spitting image, finds herself mysteriously drawn to Collinsport for a job nannying a troubled young Collins boy. Meanwhile, Angelique has used the previous centuries to take over the seafood industry and crush Barnabas’ heirs, who now have turned Collinwood Manor into a musty old rattrap with a drunk caretaker (Jackie Earle Haley). When construction workers accidentally unearth Barnabas, the old vampire returns to Collinwood and makes peace with its matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), under the proviso that he keep his monstrous nature a secret. Once he gets his bearings, Barnabas seeks to return the Collins family to its former glory while renewing his rivalry with Angelique and falling for the prim, mysterious Victoria.
Working from a script by Seth Grahame-Smith—who’s made a cottage industry out of giving the classic or historic a modern genre kick in novels like Pride And Prejudice And Zombies and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter—Burton mines the culture-clash comedy for all it’s worth, contrasting Barnabas’ old-fashioned formality with the liberated spirit of early-’70s America. The jokes are easy pickings, but they score anyway, thanks to Depp’s befuddlement in the face of a McDonald’s sign or a troll doll, his assessments of everything from Scooby Doo (“This is a very silly play”) to Love Story, and his peculiar ideas about love and the essentiality of dowries and “birthing hips.” Depp plays Barnabas as an infectiously enthusiastic go-getter—at least as enthusiastic as a doomed bloodsucker can be—and his optimism gives the Collins clan a sense of purpose and the film a sense of fun.
But any proper adaptation of Dark Shadows, even one that acknowledges and celebrates its camp silliness as much as Burton’s does, has to immerse itself in soap opera, too, and it’s here that the director’s lack of conviction becomes apparent. Barnabas is a helpless romantic at heart—he even has a spirited session with Angelique—and the story is knotted up with tempestuous affairs and a love that transcends mortal boundaries. That’s the fundamental appeal of a supernatural soap opera, after all: Humans can only love for a finite amount of time, but a vampire like Barnabas can keep the embers burning after the flesh goes cold.
Burton goes through the motions, but as much as he feels at home among this family of misfits and beasts, Dark Shadows doesn’t have the conviction to give the romantic intrigue any life. Once the laughs dry up in the final third, Burton reverts to a loud, protracted finale that shows off his dexterity with special effects, but at the expense of all other considerations. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with Burton of late: He’s grown as a technician, as skillful with CGI as he was once with stop-motion, but his technique has become as bloodless as poor Barnabas—and a fraction as passionate.