March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Tim Burton's fitfully funny 'Dark Shadows' spoofs and salutes the old horror soap opera


Long before soap operas discovered the allure of extraterrestrials, evil clones and time travel, there was “Dark Shadows,” a supernatural series that haunted weekday afternoons from 1966 to 1971. While it may have been cheaply put together (if you listen carefully in some scenes, you can hear offstage coughs, sneezes and other noises, which would seem to signal that retakes were rare and that ABC valued speed over slickness when it came to the production), creator Dan Curtis’ saga of the vampire Barnabas Collins and the cursed estate of Collinwood captured the imaginations of housewives and just-home-from-school kids as well.

The undead Barnabas would be proud to see that his show has continued to live on — via video and Netflix — long after its cancellation: A recent segment on “This American Life” profiled fans attending a lavish “Dark Shadows” convention, and none of them sounded old enough to have seen the program when it initially aired.

You don’t need to have faithfully followed the Collins clan through their more than 1,200 episodes to appreciate director Tim Burton’s screen adaptation of “Dark Shadows,” which wastes no time in setting up the tortured history of Barnabas (Johnny Depp), a British-born nobleman whose vanity, lust and interest in Mephistopheles led to his undoing. In a gloriously Gothic prologue set in the late 18th century, Barnabas seduces housemaid Angelique (Eva Green) before wooing the lovely, aristocratic Josette (pale, placid Bella Heathcote). An angry Angelique promptly makes the leap from wench to witch, trading her scrub bucket for a cauldron and using sinister sorcery to shatter Barnabas’ family and ruin his wedding plans. As a final kiss-off, she transforms Barnabas into a blood-drinker (eternal life!) and has a mob of furious villagers bury him alive in a sealed coffin (eternal damnation!).

This portion of the film sticks reasonably close to the tone of the TV version, which took its spookiness seriously. But then Burton’s “Shadows” fast-forwards to 1972, when Barnabas is accidentally resurrected and plunged into the era of Alice Cooper, lava lamps, “Deliverance” and leisurewear and pantsuits so loud they practically shriek. For the rest of its running time, “Shadows” veers back and forth, not always gracefully, between jokiness and eeriness.

Barnabas forms a secret alliance with Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (a regal Michelle Pfeiffer, splendidly nailing down that declarative, head-tossing soap-opera style), the worn-down widow and matriarch who is barely managing to keep up the humungous house of Collinwood with the swiftly sinking profits of the Collins Fishing Fleet and Cannery business. With a financial boost from a stockpile of jewels concealed in the Collinwood basement, Barnabas turns around the family’s fortunes and, inadvertently, incurs the wrath of the well-preserved but still wicked Angelique, who is running a competing fishery. The situation becomes increasingly complicated when Barnabas discovers the Stoddards’ governess, Victoria (also played by Heathcote), is the reincarnation of his beloved Josette.

Seth Grahame-Smith’s screenplay takes numerous jabs at ‘70s trends and celebrities, most of them only fitfully funny, such as when 15-year-old Carolyn Stoddard (a charmingly whacked-out Chloe Grace Moretz) tells Barnabas that Victoria is “a Carpenters chick, for sure,” and Barnabas mistakenly thinks Victoria has “a penchant for woodworkers.” The movie shows more spirit when it concentrates on reintroducing and revamping some of the familiar faces from the original series, including careless caretaker Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley) and questionably qualified psychiatrist Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter, crowned with a ostentatious red wig), who spends more time drinking highballs than she does diagnosing her patients.

There’s fun to be had in “Shadows,” particularly when Burton contrasts the lunacy of the Collins clan with some jarring outbursts of genuine violence from Barnabas, who can’t always control his thirst for blood. Depp initially seems to be coasting in the role, playing Barnabas as a creepier copy of Captain Jack Sparrow. But he eventually finds an intriguing angle on the character, whose elegant manners and flowery speech barely disguise his true nature. In the scenes in which Barnabas and Elizabeth form their slightly uncomfortable partnership, the film accurately captures the mood and atmosphere of the original, and some of the bizarre background details, such as Carolyn’s feverish dance to Donovan’s “Season of the Witch,” venture into David Lynch territory.

“Shadows” loses much of its punch once it settles into a Barnabas-versus-Angelique clash that pushes most of the other characters — and at least a couple of quickly curtailed subplots — out of the picture and paves the way for a chaotic, effects-filled finale that’s reminiscent of Pfeiffer’s “The Witches of Eastwick” (with doses of “Rebecca” and “Death Becomes Her” thrown in for good measure). The visual tricks are performed with style, but “Shadows” would have been more satisfying if it had set aside some of the digital magic and focused instead on its peculiar personalities. The movie ends with the Killers performing a cover of the Raspberries' 1972 chart-topper "Go All the Way"; you can't help wishing Burton had taken the song's advice.