With a rich, luxurious stage set and props in place, director Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows” could have been one of his best movies — but it’s not.
Based on the beloved cult soap opera on TV from 1966-1971, “Dark Shadows” is Burton’s deepest foray into tormented romance since “Edward Scissorhands.”
In that film and others, he successfully combined cartoonish visual humor and a grand, operatic style. Yet while seemingly comfortable with opera, he balks at the notion of melodrama, diluting it with silliness.
Johnny Depp stars as Barnabas Collins, a prominent citizen of Collinsport, Maine, who had the misfortune of breaking the heart of a witch, Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green). She retaliates by turning him into a vampire and burying him for 200 years.
When he escapes, it’s 1972. He returns to his family mansion, now occupied by a new generation of Collinses, including Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) and young Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz).
Additionally, a new governess (Bella Heathcote), who resembles Barnabas’ lost love, turns up.
Barnabas tries to restore the family’s glory, and its fishing business, but Angelique is still alive and bent on possessing Barnabas at any cost.
Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith, author of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” spend too much time on fish-out-of-water jokes as Barnabas tries to grasp the logic and technology of the 1970s, while dozens of “needle drops” range from cool tunes by T. Rex to cheesy songs by the Carpenters.
Frankly, this has been done, a lot, going back to “The Spirit of ’76,” a low-budget local production from 1990.
Judging by the visuals, including 1960s-style, ultra-red movie blood and dramatic, passionate sequences, Burton seemed ready to embrace a solid drama.
But he apparently flinched, falling back on ineffective jokes, rather than believing audiences would buy a heightened emotional intensity.
His approach might have worked if the jokes were as weirdly funny as in his top comedies (“Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” “Beetlejuice,” “Ed Wood”), but they’re mostly references and insults.
In Burton’s best movies, the visual gags wrap up nicely with the visual drama. Although sometimes they do in “Dark Shadows,” Burton ultimately undercuts the force of what could have been a romance for all time by relying on safe, cheap humor.
Dark Shadows ★★½
Starring Johnny Depp, MichellePfieffer, Eva Green
Written by Seth Grahame-Smith
Directed by Tim Burton