Are we past the point of hoping for better from a Tim Burton movie?
Once upon a time, when "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" and "Beetlejuice" were fresh and new, we could imagine that Burton was going to be the idiosyncratic filmmaker of our dreams a mad man-child who created strange and audacious dreamscapes like a psychotic Dr. Seuss.
We even thought Burton could do cool things with blockbusters, as he did by casting Michael Keaton as the Caped Crusader in "Batman" and "Batman Returns," two arresting, if not altogether cohesive, movies. And we saw a glorious collaboration with actor-muse Johnny Depp blossom in "Edward Scissorhands."
In the past decade or so, though, Burton has been stuck in the land of retreads. He sent up '50s monster movies in "Mars Attacks!", created a tepid "Planet of the Apes" and teamed up with Depp to make interesting but unnecessary revisions of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "Sweeney Todd," "Alice in Wonderland" and now "Dark Shadows," a semi-goofy riff on the Gothic soap opera that ran on ABC from 1966 to 1971.
Depp plays Barnabas Collins, the scion of an 18th-century Maine fishing magnate who is cursed by a spurned lover, Angelique (Eva Green), who's also a witch. Angelique compels Barnabas' doe-eyed love, Josette (Bella Heathcote), to jump off a cliff, then turns Barnabas into a vampire and leads the townsfolk to lock him in an iron coffin.
Two hundred years later, Barnabas resurfaces in 1972. He finds the family estate, Collinwood, in dilapidated form and populated by matriarch Elizabeth Collins (Michelle Pfeiffer), her sullen teen daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz), Elizabeth's loutish brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), Roger's haunted son David (Gully McGrath), the creepy groundskeeper Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley) and David's live-in psychiatrist, Dr. Julia Hoffman (played by Mrs. Burton, Helena Bonham Carter). He also meets David's new governess, Victoria Winters (also played by Heathcote), who's a dead ringer for Josette, whom she sees haunting Collinwood.
Barnabas also finds Angelique, now Angie, has become the leading citizen of the nearby town, Collinsport and she's as witchy as ever. But the shock of seeing Angelique again is nothing compared to the culture shock of landing in the era of lava lamps and leisure suits a situation Burton plays for quick laughs.
Those are about the only laughs in Burton's "Dark Shadows," as screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (who wrote the novels Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Pride & Prejudice & Zombies) veers from cultural satire to an oddly straightforward haunted-house thriller. With Burton at the helm, the result is predictably schizophrenic, with the first half set-up more entertaining than the overly busy and effects-heavy payoff.
Depp again is working as if another, and far more trippy, movie is playing in his head. Barnabas' overriding emotion, in Depp's portrayal, is towering indignation at his cursed existence and his family's lowly status. But one wonders if Depp should save some of that indignation for Burton, to spur his director friend into getting out of his remake rut.
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Johnny Depp and Tim Burton team up again, this time in a half-jokey retread of the '60s Gothic soap opera.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, May 11.
Rating • PG-13 for comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking.
Running time • 113 minutes.