Director Tim Burton might never equal his early pinnacle Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, with its tight budget and its design in splendid sync with weird little Pee-wee Herman. Burton came close with Beetlejuice and Ed Wood, achieved satirical laughs in Mars Attacks!, and used some brilliant styling in Edward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hollow. But he is increasingly prone to bulky, digitalized crash-and-burn parties such as Dark Shadows.
Burton’s pal and favorite star, Johnny Depp, is a keen fan of the cultish goth-soaper series on TV (1966–1971). Cheaply made, it found a following because of quirky humor and the posturing but sexy Canadian star Jonathan Frid as vampire Barnabas Collins. Depp, of course, is the new Collins (Frid, who died last month, has a tiny cameo). Frid served up camp well. His ham had some good marbling. Depp just looks white and waxy, a dress-up figure with a British accent in debt to Hammer Films stars (Christopher Lee has a guest gig in this movie).
Burton’s design team had fun with the Collins mansion, to which Barnabas returns in 1972 after nearly 200 years in a chained coffin. He rehabs it, but the set never becomes a living character like the big houses in both versions of The Haunting. It is a display bin for nostalgia tokens such as a Smurf doll and lava lamp and old hit tunes. That leads to Alice Cooper doing his dead, dated thing again (the “joke” is that Barnabas thinks Cooper is a woman). And, in 2012, what is the point of mocking spaced-out hippies?
Jackie Earle Haley plays a yokel Igor. Helena Bonham Carter is a soused shrink (ace American accent). Big-eyed newcomer Bella Heathcote appears to be going for a WAHA (Wannabe Audrey Hepburn Award). Michelle Pfeiffer must be playing the Spirit of Perfection Past, facing Eva Green as a vampy witch with immaculate skin. A few times, Green seems ready to take over the movie like Tina Turner in Tommy, but soon we are back to hokey gags, crashing chandeliers, fake-looking fires.
What worked in tasty episodes of daytime TV now seems stretched, bloated, and pulverized. Didn’t Depp and Burton study the weak movie spinoffs made in 1970 and ’71? Not everything popular needs to be recycled. Dark Shadows is a warning to keep the coffin shut.