Certain points are givens when it comes to a Tim Burton-Johnny Depp collaboration. It's gonna be heavily stylized (with a healthy dose of the Gothic), there'll be twisted jokes and wacky dress-up, and plot will be the last thing on everyone's mind. Check, check, and check when it comes to Dark Shadows, Burton's eighth collaboration with Depp (seventh with Helena Bonham Carter and thirteenth with composer Danny Elfman, by the way). The cheesy cult-TV soap opera Dark Shadows ran from 1966 to 1971 on ABC, amassing 1,225 episodes and plenty of plot for story man John August, screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter), Burton and Depp to fritter into a 113-minute mess.
Fragmentation, oddly enough, is something of a motif to Burton's Dark Shadows, since one of the characters literally cracks up, developing eggshell fractures in porcelain skin (a tear rolling down one of those cracks is one of the film's more poignant images). But it's also the film's biggest problem, not so much for the picture's highwire act of tone (teetering from straight melodrama to camp melodrama to arch comedy and back again with impressive try-to-stop-us abandon) but for the way Burton forgets characters at length, only for them to reappear and do something that would be momentous had we ever been afforded an opportunity to care about them. By asking the audience to take far too much on faith, Dark Shadows can only be an interesting failure. Like a lot of Burton movies, it's considerably less than the sum of its parts (but oh, the parts!).
Depp plays Barnabas Collins, an 18th-century vampire who originally hails from Liverpool, England. "The Collins family empire" rises, however, in Maine, where its fishing business established the hamlet of Collinsport and the estate of Collinwood; there, young Barnabas runs afoul of a witch named Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), who curses Barnabas to lose everyone he loves (starting with Bella Heathcote's Josette du Pres), turns Barnabas into a vampire, then chains him and buries him undead. Flash forward to 1972, where unfortunate construction workers uncover the hungry 196-year-old vampire, who returns to the family mansion to find his descendants. They're creepy and they're kooky, mysterious and spooky; they're all together ooky: matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (a droll Michelle Pfeiffer), her rebel-rebel fifteen-year-old daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz), Elizabeth's ne'er-do-well brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller in wiggy combover), and Roger's "I see dead people" son David (Gulliver McGrath).
They're joined by live-in psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Carter), caretaker Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley) and the newest resident of Collinwood, David's governess Victoria Winters—also played by Heathcote, she appears to be the reincarnation of Josette (in one of the film's best lines, Elizabeth greets Victoria: "Welcome to Collinwood. You'll have to imagine us on a better day"). Barnabas' return unnerves Elizabeth, but his store of hidden wealth and secrets are demonstrably useful, so she agrees to help him integrate into the family, reintegrate into the Collins Canning Company, and adjust to the foreign future of the 1970s.
It's vampires and vamps, and the soap suds lather up quickly as Barnabas tries to resist the heat of Angelique (whose evil is motivated by unrequited love) and win over his lost love Josette/Victoria. Pfeiffer and Depp's first extended scene together amusingly apes langorous soap-operatic acting styles and pose-and-pose-again blocking, but it's one more gag in a movie full of what-the-hell allusions. Apart from the Addams Family feel, find nods to Hammer horror (a cameo by Christopher Lee included), typically glib period source music ("Knights in White Satin," "Season of the Witch"), and a climax that evokes Death Becomes Her.
Some of these parts are awfully fun (a comic montage set to the Carpenters' "Top of the World" and an athletic supernatural sex scene), and Depp proves typically commanding and funny as the mesmeric, long-fingered bloodsucker, but die-hard fans of the original series are likely to feel shat upon (despite a quick cameo from the original stars) and others may just find themselves uttering the same WTF exclamation as Barnabas at the sight of a television: "What sorcery is this?!"