Barnabas Collins is a vampire, but like many supernatural creatures he started out as a man. In his mortal days he made a common mistake. Barnabas got it on with a passionate partner to whom he had no intention to commit, while holding a flame for another chaste beauty. This did not end well. The spurned partner took refuge in the classic ‘stay busy’ activity of jilted lovers everywhere: she cursed Collins to vampirism, locked him in a coffin for a couple hundred years, and adopted a scorched-earth policy with respect to his entire family. Which is to say, in Dark Shadows the crazy ex-girlfriend is literally a witch.

Johnny Depp is a lifelong fan of the strange ’60s soap opera Dark Shadows. He’s wanted to revive the property, and put his own spin on Barnabas Collins, for years. Depp’s perpetual enabler Tim Burton finally took him up on the prospect, and the result is their eighth major collaboration. Visually opulent but emotionally arid, Dark Shadows feels occasionally like a campy play on the old show, but far more often like an opportunity for Burton to hash out old relationship issues. Those approaches don’t mesh together any better than did Collins’ two lovers.

In the Collins family manor up the coast of Maine, things are SO boring. The house is grey like old skin, the family business all but extinguished. Grande dame Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) struts in gowns and false eyelashes, dripping costume jewelry and globs of eyeshadow. She’s too bored even to fire the drunk psychiatrist (Helena Bonham Carter) hired to care for the son of loutish Roger Collins. Under the influence of those adults, Elizabeth’s daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz) is maturing from insolent brat to indolent ass.

As Burton’s queer family portraits go, this one is on the low side of the personality scale. Not even the arrival of Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote) — a porcelain but progressive doll of a governess — can light a fire in these souls. What are many of these people doing, in Maine, and even in the film? Burton, with writers John Logan and Seth Grahame-Smith, lets characters like Elizabeth, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), and his son (Gulliver McGrath) drift with less purpose than the ghosts in the Collins manor halls. They fade into intangibility.

And then comes Barnabas. Burton and Depp have trod a certain path before: as a family is on the verge of fossilizing, an outlandish, dark-eyed other materializes, bringing them back to life. Dark Shadows initially seems to be on that road. Barnabas was locked away in the late 1700s and wakes in 1972. The film gets up to speed with cute and obvious ‘man out of time’ gags and shreds of scenes that put Barnabas back in control of his family. For a guy meant to be bringing life, Depp’s delivery is so deadpan it verges on simply dead. Then again, he is playing a vampire, and regardless, he does invigorate things a bit.

There’s a problem, however, and it isn’t Burton’s old preoccupation between suburbia and the subversive. The real issue is Angelique, the aforementioned witch, played by Eva Green as an eye-popping blonde pinup. Centuries spent grinding the Collins family under her heel left her with the questionable honor of ruling the local roost. In other words, she’s bored, too, and the awakening of her old lover coaxes the spark in her eye up to full fire.

Barnabas and Angelique fall into their old pattern — hate sex, followed simply by hate. The ‘crazy ex’ interest knocks Dark Shadows off its axis. Attention to the Barnabas/Angie entanglement further marginalizes characters on the periphery; Miller might as well not even be in the movie. It doesn’t help that Green is a more vital energy source than anyone else. Victoria Winters is the doppelganger of Barnabas’ old love, and we’re told he wants her, but Green is a beacon of light. When Heathcote disappears for long stretches, gently luminous though she is, you might not even wonder where she got to.

That’s where it got weird. I saw in Green the spitting image of Lisa Marie (Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Mars Attacks), the actress Burton dated through the ’90s. Their engagement ended after Burton met Helena Bonham Carter, while both women were acting in Planet of the Apes. I don’t know the intimate details of Burton’s life beyond the public knowledge that Marie auctioned off Burton’s possessions, possibly as revenge, but Dark Shadows quickly started to play like his way of dealing with the idea of the lingering bad end of a relationship. That’s far more personal than Burton tends to get; it certainly moves well beyond his stock ‘outsider looking in’ thematic concern. The striking blonde is a near-constant ingredient in Burton’s films, but usually as ingenue, rather than predator.

Dark Shadows has assets: Green, Colleen Atwood‘s costumes, Alice Cooper miming a ‘live’ performance of one of his best songs, ‘The Ballad of Dwight Fry.’ But at two hours it is burdened with too many characters with far too little to do. The script isn’t so slavishly devoted to the original show that it refuses to take liberties, but it also includes many characters for which it plainly has little use. The only real concern is the Barnabas/Angelique battle, but by silly asides and nods to the show are frequent distractions. Focus is lost, the tone lurches.

Have Burton and Depp have fallen out of love and into the roommate phase? That they are creatively comfortable with one another is beyond question, but filmmaking thrives on tension, not comfort. In this case, taking Depp’s love of the show into account, I wonder if disparate approaches to story in Dark Shadows are the result of director and star approaching the film from irreconcilable angles. With its preoccupation with old affairs, new love and moving on, the film is a $200m breakup letter. Question is, whose name is on the envelope?

/Film score: 4 out of 10

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About the Author

Russ Fischer lives in Los Angeles. For film reviews, the 1-10 scale breakdown goes like this: anything over a 5 is positive. (twitter.com/russfischer) or (russ.slashfilm at gmail.com)

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