Dark Shadows - Johnny Depp
Revived vampire Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) awkwardly adjusts to the strange 1970s © 2012 Warner Bros

Pictured above: Dark Shadows – Revived vampire Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) awkwardly adjusts to the strange 1970s © 2012 Warner Bros

Dark Shadows devotees indignant about the prospect of their beloved supernatural soap opera getting a campy makeover were only half right to be worried. Unlike the 1966-71 TV series, this eighth big-screen collaboration between director Tim Burton and star Johnny Depp does have a lot of intentional laughs. But what’s unexpected is that the fitfully funny film’s underlying story is more gothic than goofy.

Dark Shadows also looks more like Burton’s antique-postcard Sweeney Todd or dreamily tinted Alice in Wonderland than earlier candy-color confections like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Edward Scissorhands. Beginning and ending with very Sweeney-like shots, the movie features opening and closing narration by a seriously melancholy Barnabas Collins (Depp).

There’s no funny stuff whatsoever in his 1760 backstory. Barnabas leaves England as a boy with his parents for the coast of Maine, where his father establishes a thriving business and builds the 200-room Collinwood mansion. Barnabas later spurns passionate servant girl Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) for ethereal beauty Josette (Bella Heathcote). Bad idea. Angelique turns out to know enough about witchcraft to curse the entire Collins family, transform Barnabas into a vampire and enchant Josette into taking a lover’s leap. Incited locals bury Barnabas alive — or alive-ish — for nearly 200 years.

Dark Shadows - Eva Green
Ageless Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) is bewitchingly bad © 2012 Warner Bros

It’s only when 1972 construction workers unearth him that things turn tongue-in-cheek. The future-shocked Barnabas regards a McDonalds sign as a taunt from Mephistopheles, declares that a Scooby Doo cartoon is “a very silly play” and regards the lyrics to Steve Miller’s “The Joker” (“I’m a picker, I’m a grinner, I’m a lover and I’m a sinner”) as more eloquent than Shakespeare. The Collins fishing business has tanked, the manor is in disrepair and its eccentric inhabitants — presumably descended from some other branch of the Collins line — unquestioningly accept the Nosferatu-fingered Barnabas as a distant relation.

Proud matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (a seen-it-all Michelle Pfeiffer) is the only one who knows his true nature. Her teenage daughter Carolyn (an amusingly surly Chloë Grace Moretz) thinks the anachronistic things Barnabas says are so weird he must be stoned. Elizabeth’s 10-year-old nephew David (Gully McGrath), whose mother was lost at sea, believes he can talk to her ghost. David’s live-in psychiatrist Dr Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) is an orange-haired alcoholic, and the estate’s couldn’t-care-less caretaker is underplayed to deadpan perfection by Jackie Earle Haley.

Barnabas is smitten with David’s Josette-lookalike new governess Victoria Winters (also played by Heathcote). Her unearthly luminous pallor echoes Barnabas’ own, and she is haunted by visions of his dearly departed. But the agelessly gorgeous Angelique, who has made a two-century transformation from bitter brunette servant to bitchy blond tycoon, wants Barnabas as much as ever.

Green is gloriously nasty and seductively sexy as Angelique, who is sultry enough to raise the undead. She may be wanton and 100-percent witch, but wow, what a woman.

Depp is as offbeat appealing as always, giving Barnabas a formal manner that’s just off enough to be wonderfully odd. Informed of Carolyn’s age, he intones, “15 and no husband? You must put those birthing hips to use at once!” Barnabas is civilized enough to be apologetic about fanging his victims, but ferocious enough to go murderously Middle-Ages on Angelique when he gets the chance.

The movie’s quirky tone is less broad than that of the Addams Family franchise, despite certain similarities — and the fact that Barnabas look very Addams-esque with oversized umbrella and sunglasses during daylight hours. The 1970s-mocking humor feels grafted onto a straightforward horror story, much like screenplay writer Seth Grahame-Smith’s mash-up prose novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

That means Dark Shadows isn’t the wacky wall-to-wall parody some may be expecting, but the hypnotic spell of this unusual reboot is hard to resist.

[Rating: 3.5 stars]

Dark Shadows is released in theatres in USA, Canada and the UK on Friday May 11, 2012. Australia release in Thursday May 10, 2012.

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.