After the personality-free debacle that was Alice in Wonderland, it's refreshing to see that Tim Burton's film adaptation of Dark Shadows, the '70s TV soap opera-cum-vampire romance, is at least idiosyncratically confounding. It's a weird mix of '70s nostalgia, campy comedy and creaky but sincere melodrama, and though tonally it's all over the place, it still bears the unique stamp of its maker's morbid-adolescent sensibility. Missing, however, is the nasty black-humored streak that distinguished Sweeney Todd and many of Burton's superior earlier films — or much of any other purpose to exist.
Take, for example, the sex scenes, especially the one where Johnny Depp's vampire and Eva Green's witch destroy furniture while bumping and grinding in fast-motion and mid-air. This individual moment, scored by a Barry White standard, decisively sets the film apart from Twilight and its ilk (whose popularity is almost certainly part of why the project got green-lit). But it just comes across as a shrugged-off gag, unable to commit to either outright slapstick or crazed grand passion. Burton's film is neither as garish nor as consistently entertaining as it should be, just po-facedly kitschy.
Depp stars in Burton's overburdened homage as Barnabas Collins, the precocious heir to a family fortune and an elfin, centuries-old vampire. In 1768, Barnabas is cursed to eternal life by Angelique Bouchard (Green), a spurned lover and spiteful witch. After watching his true love Josette DuPres (Bella Heathcote) leap to her death, Barnabas falls into a centuries-long sleep and awakens in 1972. Though overwhelmed by culture shock (Alice Cooper, independent women and flairs everywhere, man!) he nevertheless resolves to restore his ancestral home Collinswood to its former glory.
Angelique tries to win Barnabas back even as the reactivated vampire attempts to seduce Victoria Winters (Heathcote again), while far-out lady psych Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) tries to become a vampire like Barnabas. Oh, and there's a teenage werewolf, a haunted prepubescent boy and a drunken, hypnotized manservant too.
Admittedly, eternal vampiric afterlife would look like a snap compared to making something tonally cohesive out of all these dangling plot strands. But Burton's evidently genuine affection for the show's shrill, florid melodrama is often offset by the movie's glaringly preposterous story. Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith go for easy jokes but in indecisive ways, as in Depp and Green's high-flying sex act. Presumably, the film's implicit ludicrousness is meant to speak for itself. Had Burton played the film totally straight or totally goofy, though, he'd have a much more uniformly satisfying or enraging film.
As it stands, Burton's turned out a sometimes enjoyable but mostly confusing homage to a show only diehard cultists even remember. Dark Shadows appears to be the film Burton wanted to make — again, an improvement over the Beetlejuice-for-hire mannerisms of Alice in Wonderland. Judging from scenes built around Donovan song cues, campfire massacres and weird sex triangles, however, it seems he was trying to figure out what it meant to him on the fly. Burton reimagines the '70s as a trippy, slaphappy period when you could go see Super Fly at your local Smalltown, U.S.A., movie theater and then get seduced by an albino vampire with a goofy British accent. Make of that what you will.