When you go to see Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, a baroquely droll and Burtonized update of the gothic oddball vampire soap opera that ran on ABC from 1966 to 1971, it seems a fairly safe bet that Johnny Depp, as Barnabas Collins, will be the freakiest person on screen. He is, but not in the way I expected. Barnabas, born in the 18th century, shows up in the fishing village of Collinsport, Maine, in 1972 after having spent 200 years in a coffin. Even amid the dope-happy, wilted-flower-power decadence of the early ’70s, he cuts a distinctive figure. For openers, he’s a bloody killer: The first thing he does is to slake his thirst by ripping into the throats of the workers who found his coffin. He’s also an incongruous aristocrat. In his regal long coat and ascot, balancing himself on a wolf’s-head cane, he walks with stiff, stately formality, and his chalky skin and sunken eyes are set off by a hairdo of staggered bangs that makes it look as if he’d just come from a Vidal Sassoon salon in Transylvania.
Yet Barnabas, at heart, is really rather conservative. He’s sweet, a touch recessive, and not ultimately very threatening. He’s a courtly dandy, a gentleman. After arriving at Collinwood Manor, the moldering 200-room mansion that his descendants still occupy, he meets Victoria (Bella Heathcote), the governess who’s the reincarnation of the girl he once loved, and he can’t believe that she’s known as Vicky. ”A name like Victoria is so beautiful,” he purrs in his plummy British accent, ”that I could not bear to part with a single syllable of it.” And he means it! In 1972, Barnabas is an archaic romantic nobleman out of Jane Austen. He’s not just undead; in the hippie-gone-glam era, he’s mind-bendingly uncool. Which, ironically, is what sort of is cool — and freakish — about him.
Depp’s performance is more than just funny — it’s ghoulishly endearing. He caresses each line with great care, as if it were a piece of candy he’s unwrapping, and he gives Barnabas, in his very ”demonic” intensity, a quality of almost elfin innocence that recalls the characters Depp has most memorably played for Burton: Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, and Willy Wonka. But Dark Shadows, entertaining as it is, is a milder echo of those earlier collaborations. Burton references cheeky time-capsule artifacts (lava lamps, Troll dolls, macramé plant holders, the board game Operation). He piles on period pop chestnuts like the Moody Blues’ ”Nights in White Satin” and the Carpenters’ ”Top of the World,” and he stages a trippy grand ball presided over by Alice Cooper. I found a great deal of this stuff irresistible, but Dark Shadows is likably skewed fun that, at times, is a little too knowing about being a piece of kitsch.
The original Dark Shadows, a tale of bloodsuckers told in the slightly depressed, badly lit style of Days of Our Lives, has fostered a cult over the decades, but when I was a kid catching glimpses of it on TV, I never knew quite what to make of its fusion of horror and banality. Burton, working from a script by Seth Grahame-Smith that’s stronger on dialogue than story, devises his own goofy riffs on the material. Barnabas finds a home with his relatives, who are basically one-note walking quirks: Chloë Grace Moretz as an insolent teen brat, Jonny Lee Miller as a dweebish scoundrel dad in a mod plaid jacket, Helena Bonham Carter as a neurotic whiskey-swilling shrink, and Michelle Pfeiffer as the levelheaded matriarch. The plot? Barnabas attempts to save the family fishery business — which means that he must once again face down Angelique (Eva Green), the witch whose advances he spurned two centuries ago and who got her vengeance by placing the curse of vampirism upon him. She now runs the rival cannery in town.
Green, who had such a complex allure in Casino Royale, here turns herself into an S&M vixen with a crooked leer of a smile. She and Depp have a supernatural sex scene (which gets a bit too gymnastic), but mostly she looks at him as if she wants to devour him, and Green makes that seem like a sick version of romance. By the last act, however, her performance literally becomes a special effect, her skin cracking like porcelain as she spews her toxic passion. Barnabas’ heart, you see, is too pure for Angelique. He’s saving himself for Victoria, the otherworldly governess. Dark Shadows, a kinky love triangle, is true, in its fashion, to the spirit of the old soap opera. Yet its real love affair is between Johnny Depp and the audience who’s still hooked on seeing him get his freak on. B+