Tim Burton's riff on the ‘60s/'70s vampire camp soap opera Dark Shadows joins a subset of TV-to-movie adaptations redundantly obsessed with the fish-out-of-water trope. These include The Brady Bunch Movie (great), The Addams Family (sequel's superior) and The Coneheads (sound the screeches of objection). The plots of these films serve to emphasize the transition of media by having their characters marvel at and bumble through a new, unfamiliar environment. It's novelty with a side of novelty. It revels in the supposed dearth of modern invention that fuels remake culture. It's as honest as it is regrettable.
Dark Shadows doesn't force its vampire protagonist Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) into a modern setting much beyond the series' original conceit – Burton's take on the soap that ran till 1971 takes place in 1972. The greatest advantages of this are getting to see Helena Bonham Carter in period-appropriate drag and getting to hear the Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin" blare gloriously over a cinema-grade sound system as the film's barebones credits roll. Just as he was on TV, Barnabas has been excavated from 196 years of burial and joins his descendants who live at his mansion, a rundown sort of Grey Gardens which substitutes the supernatural for raccoons and cats.
Culture shock ensues. Barnabas says all sorts of things out of step with modern times not just in their misunderstanding of technology, but also their formality. To headlights: "Show yourself, Satan. Mark me not with your strange imminence." To Karen Carpenter on television: "What sorcery is this? Reveal yourself tiny songstress." On Scooby Doo: "This is a very silly play." He says it all with an eye-fucking intensity and stilted formality that reminded me the most of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls' Phil Spector-esque ambi-sexual/-gender Ronnie "Z-Man" Barzell.
Depp mostly plays it straight (aside from some fourth-wall-shattering side-eye camping) and helps set Dark Shadows' greatest strength: an odd, gently humorous atmosphere that settles over the film the way dread or suspense might in an actual scary movie. (The frights here are sub-Haunted Mansion at Disney World.) The shadows are numerous but it turns out, light. A few over-the-top sequences aside (like a sex scene between Barnabas and his witch adversary Angelique, which involves them violently tossing each other across the room and their fingers running through walls), there is a self-assured subtlety to the humor. Michelle Pfeiffer, in particular as the family matriarch Elizabeth, hits this impressive, almost undetectable mode of camp. She's all awkward pauses and darting eyes and pursing lips and just over the threshold of appropriate reactions, sending up the entire concept of soap-opera acting without so much as a wink.
The problem with Dark Shadows is that once you get past the ornate sets (which deserve to be fondled as sensuously as Barnabas does with his extra-knuckled fingers) and the gorgeously washed-out picture and Barnabas' odd formalities and the uniformly visible face powder and Helena Bonham Carter sitting at a table and just letting the cigarette smoke billow out of her mouth in clouds, there's nothing left. Everyone's on different planes of playing it straight, and that the characters are so underdeveloped puts us at an even further distance. Yeah, Chloë Moretz has a zonked Lolita thing going on that's fascinating to see, but not to watch for any period of time.
And so, it's jarring when the film inevitably firms up and attempts to resolve itself with conventions far blander than that fish-out-of-water one (a love reunion with a governess, who looks like his former flame Josette; Bella Heathcote sleeps through both roles). We're asked to care about characters who, up until that point, did little more than set the tone. Will people find out that Barnabas is a vampire? Who cares. They should know by looking at his Nosferatu hands and amulets, and that knowledge doesn't much affect those who have it anyway. Will the family lose its previously dormant business? Hopefully, because then the mostly mortal crew would starve and couldn't return for a sequel.
Dark Shadows is something of a return to quirk for Tim Burton, whose yawn has become more pronounced with each underwhelming remake and half-hearted invocation of the goth imp he once was. Dark Shadows is better than Alice in Wonderland or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but that's only because it doesn't aim high enough to create a disaster. The film is only quirk, a premise more than a practice, a toy that's more fun in the package. Early on, Pfeiffer's character notes on the state of the mansion and family, "You will have to remember us on a better day." It's a suitable apology for all.