Fangs for the Memories

Tim Burton takes the bite out of Dark Shadows

"Tim Burton hasn't had much luck with remakes and other yellowed source material. His candy-colored and kaleidoscopic takes on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland were visual delights, but they were also boring and forgettable. Mars Attacks! — based on a popular trading-card series from the '60s — was a mess. And the less said about his disastrous Planet of the Apes, the better.

Burton is at his best exploring personal subjects, such as daddy issues (like in his best movie, Big Fish) and topics that obviously influenced him as a filmmaker (like Ed Wood, another great film). It's when he falls into other people's material, or somewhere on middle ground (like, say, his Batman movies), that he stumbles.

With Dark Shadows, he's somewhere in the center, leaning toward remake. Based on the 1970s soap opera about vampires — think Twilight, but with tortured adults instead of pouty teens — Burton's campy update dresses up Johnny Depp with a cane and fangs, makes the whole thing a fish-out-of-water story, and turns out another movie with great set direction and a grade-A cast, but not much of a story.

What there is of one begins with a lengthy intro set in the 18th century: Wealthy aristocrat Barnabas Collins (Depp) spurs the advances of a servant (Eva Green), who also happens to be a witch. She curses Barnabas with everlasting life by turning him into a vampire and leading a village revolt against him. The stylish gothic prologue then jumps time and tone, landing in 1972 with Barnabas' eccentric descendents, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, Jonny Lee Miller, and Chloë Grace Moretz.

Barnabas — freed from the grave, where he spent the past 200 years — is introduced to this new world of paved roads, pot-smoking hippies, and McDonald's golden arches. And then Burton, along with Depp, unpacks his usual bag of tricks.

There's a plot here, about Barnabas trying to restore prestige and wealth to Collins Manor, which has pretty much gone to hell since Angelique Bouchard (Green again, reincarnated as an evil businesswoman) took over the town. But Dark Shadows is mostly an excuse for Depp to try on another accent and more period clothing as he collides with contemporary amenities like TV and rock music.

Depp — who used to be one of our most interesting actors, but in the past decade has become one of our hammiest — stocks up on exaggerated hand gestures, exasperated eye rolls, and confused expressions beneath his caked-on makeup. In the end, Barnabas is just the latest in a parade of Depp caricatures like Jack Sparrow and the Mad Hatter.

The movie's best jokes come with Barnabas' culture clash. But that's pretty much Dark Shadows' only joke and its main reason for existing. Burton's reverence for the look of the period is evident, but this is no horror story, soap opera, or even gothic romance. It's just Burton goofing around again.

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