After 2010's CG blowout Alice in Wonderland, long-time collaborators Johnny Depp and Tim Burton return to a more realistic realm with their update of the '60s gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. It just so happens that realism, in the case of Depp and Burton, also involves vampires.
We first meet Barnabas Collins (Depp) in 1752, enjoying the aristocratic lifestyle of his successful father and wooing the female staff employed in the Collins' mansion. The romantic lifestyle is without consequence, until Barnabas picks up and drops the wrong servant: Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), a witch with a nasty case of jealousy. When Barnabas finally discovers true love, Bouchard casts a spell on his favored female, causing her to jump off a cliff. In the wake of the incident and with nothing left to live for, Barnabas hurls himself off the edge but Bouchard curses him before he hits the ground. He's become a vampire, an immortal, and Bouchard has just the everlasting punishment in mind. She buries Barnabas in a coffin, never to be seen again.
Jump ahead to 1972, where a construction crew in Collinsport resurface the confined bloodsucker. After a quick bite, Barnabas heads home to his manor to discover he's a true bat out of water. His family is gone, replaced by a new generation of Collinses: Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), the family matriarch; Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), her angsty niece; David (Gulliver McGrath), highly disturbed by memories of his dead mother; Roger (Johnny Lee Miller), the scheming, deadbeat dad; and Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), David's constantly intoxicated psychologist; and Victoria (Bella Heathcote), the new recruit, hired to school David in his fragile state. Barnabas' learning curve adjusting to his new surroundings is the crux of Dark Shadows' purposefully meandering plot, which strikes a few brilliant bits of comedy in between long stretches of lifeless melodrama. Turns out a soap opera adaptation ends up being pretty darn soap opera-y.
Unlike most summer blockbusters, Dark Shadows sparingly uses action and large-scale set pieces to tell its story. Burton chooses a lower-key approach, in the vein of his earlier films like Beetlejuice or Edward Scissorhands. But the movie differs in its lack of emotional throughline all the colorful misadventures would be a lot more effective if there was something to care about. Barnabas strikes up a romance with Victoria, but it's hamfisted. He becomes a fatherly figure to David, but only late in the film. By the third montage set to a classic rock tune, it's clear Burton and Depp seem far more interested in the bizarre collision of vampire tropes and '70s decor. A scene in which Barnabas converses with a group of pot-smoking hippies on the ins and outs of youth culture works as a sketch comedy vignette, but in the grand scheme of the story, is fluffy, funny and pointless.
Depp's dedication to keeping things weird helps Dark Shadows stay alive. He loves the theatrics, biting into every moment with epic speak lifted from the British thee-aaaay-ter. Green joins in on the fun full force, her wicked seductress both playful and unabashedly evil. The rest of the cast makes little splash, Pfeiffer playing the straight woman while the rest of the ensemble go toe to toe with the larger than life Depp. They don't seem in on the same joke as Depp, and the many dialogue scenes just. Come. Off. As. Slooooow. And. Painful. Deliberate soap opera acting is a tightrope walk only Depp and Green really make it across without faltering.
Dark Shadows is a mixed bag that feels indebted to a source material. Whether you're familiar with the style or not may will be a deciding factor. Burton's washy aesthetics and plodding pacing don't do the material any favors, with Danny Elfman's standard issued score failing to elevate the atmosphere. Kitsch and horrors abound, but the witch's brew of elements won't be everyone's cup of tea. Er, cup of blood?