The partnership of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp began with the shrewdly playful Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Ed Wood (1994). These were movies that understood how private neuroses fuel public heroes, a knowledge Burton put to good use in his smart, funny Batman movies.
Who might show up next in Burton-Depp's island of misfit toys? Orson Welles (a character in Ed Wood)? A movie queen? Hey, maybe the real thing– Princess Di?
No such luck. The next five Burton-Depp movies were costume parties that failed to involve audiences. A wearying cynicism crept into the partnership. The sour Charlie and the Chocolate Factory allowed Depp to cruelly impersonate Michael Jackson. Sweeney Todd was an excuse for the star to put a skunk streak in his hair.
Burton and Depp's eighth collaboration, Dark Shadows, is a remake of the 1966-71 after-school TV show, a gothic soap featuring an aristocratic vampire, Barnabas Collins. Series themes – hypnosis, revenge, doomed trysts – resonated with high-school and college audiences.
The film comes from a script by Seth Grahame-Smith, author of the novels Pride & Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Clearly, Burton was intrigued by the writer's fanciful hybrids, for Dark Shadows is now a giddy mash-up of times and temperaments.
Barnabas (Depp) is an 18th-century vampire who wakes from a 200-year nap. The first 10 minutes take place in Liverpool and storm-lashed Maine, inside gloomy mansions. We have witches and potions, along with a beautiful, willing servant girl angling tragically for Barnabas's heart.
Then suddenly, Barnabas is in toothpaste-bright 1972, shielding his eyes from lava lamps and blinding orange McDonald's signs. T. Rex is on the turntable. "When can the horses be ready?" he asks the reigning matriarch (Michelle Pfeiffer) upon returning to Collins manor.
"We don't have horses; we have a Chevy," she replies.
At that same dinner table, a niece asks Barnabas, "Are you stoned or something?"
"They tried stoning me, my dear," the vampire purrs. "It did not work."
And that's your Dark Shadows remake – Johnny Depp playing to his public image as a hipster roué. Nothing else is important here, certainly not Pfeiffer or Helena Bonham-Carter, who are left with little to do as our hero's puzzled heirs. Younger actresses Eva Green ( Casino Royale) and Bella Heathcote are more involved as Barnabas's love interests. But even Heathcote passes through the film without provoking interest, and she's supposed to be Barnabas's reason for being.
No, Dark Shadows' only meaningful relationship is between Depp and his audience. He's a persona now, no longer an actor. And the kick here, as always, is watching him try on funny accents and hairdos. He's going for a London art school bohemian sound and look this time, sporting long hair sculpted close to the skull. Our vampire apparently wants to join The Moody Blues.
Filmmaker Burton, meanwhile, satisfies himself with mucking about a haunted mansion and playing with crane shots outdoors.
- Directed by Tim Burton
- Written by Seth Grahame-Smith
- Starring Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Bella Heathcote and Alice Cooper
- Classification: 14A
- 2 stars
Special to The Globe and Mail