Dark Shadows, Tim Burton, 113 mins (12A)

Tim Burton's stalwart star gives good fang, but this gothic comedy feels about as fresh as stale garlic

Jonathan Romney
Monday 14 May 2012 10:05
Johnny Depp plays 200-year-old vampire Barnabas Collins
in Dark Shadows
Johnny Depp plays 200-year-old vampire Barnabas Collins in Dark Shadows

Don't think Tim Burton doesn't know that his Dark Shadows is creaky – it's designed to be as creaky as the coffin that Johnny Depp's vampire hero is forever rising from. Burton's gothic comedy is based on an American TV classic – or so we're told, since the supernatural daytime soap Dark Shadows ran in the United States from 1966 to 1971 but is largely unknown in Britain. Having taken the trouble to exhume the series from its cobwebbed vaults (at least, watched clips on YouTube), I can tell you it looks cobwebby indeed, like Edward D Wood trying his hand at Douglas Sirk melodrama, or Peyton Place gone Transylvanian.

The show's main attraction was 200-year-old vampire Barnabas Collins, played on TV by the recently deceased Jonathan Frid (whose brief cameo for this film was, presumably, shot before his death). Much of the time, Burton's version executes its comedy with respectful solemnity, rather hampering the film's main function as a tongue-in-cheek, hyper-camp lark. Written by John August and Seth Grahame-Smith, the film starts by depicting the early woes of Barnabas (Depp), 18th-century scion of the Collins dynasty, cursed by Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), the beautiful witch he's jilted, to become an immortal vampire.

Skip to 1972 and the Collins descendants are on their uppers in their gloomy Maine mansion. A baffled Barnabas rises again to find the 1970s in full swing. Superfly is on at the Roxy, the airwaves are ruled by the Carpenters and Alice Cooper (who has a singing cameo: "Ugliest woman I've ever seen," Barnabas sniffs), and the Collins women – headed by a grand Michelle Pfeiffer – are into macramé.

Along with the gags about lava lamps and other retro relics, there are assorted winks to the horror buffs – Barnabas wears cool sunglasses like Vincent Price in The Tomb of Ligeia, and when Angelique unleashes a stream of diabolic puke, it's pea-soup green, as in The Exorcist. But the vampire quips reek of stale garlic – sight gags about hanging upside down and not showing in bathroom mirrors, jokes many times exhumed by the time of Carry On Screaming.

Depp, of course, is good value. His Barnabas is a haughty, feminised English dandy – ashen white with painted grey cheekbones, the slicked-forward hair of a Henry Irving-era Hamlet, and oddly squat physique. With his echoing-vault moan of a delivery and piss-elegant grandeur, he comes across like Alan Rickman playing Young Uncle Fester. The performance is a hoot, but not the hoot it would have been before Twilight, when spoofy vampire humour was, if not any fresher, at least differently stale.

The prestige cast, as the variously neurotic Collinses, are all rather lost. It's fun seeing Michelle Pfeiffer take whole-heartedly to the brittle matriarch role, but she doesn't have much to do; neither does Helena Bonham Carter, as a boozy shrink with a sideline in blood transfusion. The best turn in the family is Chloë Grace Moretz as a rebellious teen (and a rather avant-garde one: no one listened to the Stooges in 1972, outside Detroit).

But it's Eva Green's Angelique who steals the limelight, with her fatale-o-meter turned up way above 11. With flowing blonde tresses and eggshell complexion (and I do mean eggshell), her "succubus of Satan" swanks around in drop-dead gowns, pronouncing darkly in a Bette Davis groan. She's the most cartoonish presence in the film, like Jessica Rabbit's satanic sister with a huge blood-red mouth, which Burton might easily have painted on and animated by hand.

As with the director's minor films, it's more about visuals than vision, and Dark Shadows is a sort of Burton compendium. Shot sumptuously by Bruno Delbonnel and designed by Rick Heinrichs, the look moves between the period dark elegance of Sweeney Todd (inkily metallic night-scapes, as in fine old engravings) and the scratchy baroque of Burton's animations (Bella Heathcote plays a haunted waif straight out of Corpse Bride), with some of the all-American garishness of Beetlejuice. But the luxurious execution makes the jokes that much less funny. Despite the electric 1970s colour scheme, Dark Shadows isn't a live wire, just routinely undead.

Next week

Jonathan Romney heads for Cannes and Wes Anderson's opening film, Moonrise Kingdom

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