If you're not interested in what Johnny Depp and director Tim Burton are cooking up, you're missing out on one of the best go-your-own-way teams in screen history. Dark Shadows, their eighth collaboration to date, doesn't occupy the rarefied air of Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands and Sweeney Todd. It's too scattershot for the pantheon, but at least as good as Alice and Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Burton's visuals are a sumptuous treat, as is Depp's unerring sense of mischief, playing Barnabas Collins, a vampire with family problems.
Based on the daily daytime soap that ran on ABC from 1966 to 1971, Dark Shadows radiates affection for the TV version that starred Jonathan Frid (who died in April) as Barnabas. Resurrected from 200 years of coffin boredom, Barnabas turns up at the family manor in Maine, circa 1972, to find fast food and faster technology as fearsome a plague as the threat of the stake. The wreck of the Collinwood estate is run by the family matriarch, Elizabeth (a delicious Michelle Pfeiffer), who strains to control her brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), her sullen teen daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz) and Roger's motherless 10-year-old handful, David (Gulliver McGrath). This family is so dysfunctional it employs a full-time, live-in shrink, Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter is a hoot and a half). Two centuries ago, the human Barnabas had proposed to pretty little Josette (Bella Heathcote) while having it on with hottie servant Angelique (a scary-sexy Eva Green). Little did he know that Angelique was a witch who didn't like being spurned. Hence the vampire curse. And if you don't think both ladies turn up in 1972, you don't know Hollywood.
Writer Seth Grahame-Smith attempts to assemble 1,225 TV episodes into a coherent, 112-minute script. He fails. And Burton is no help, following his own private fancies while the plot hits a series of dead ends. After a fierce and funny start, Dark Shadows simply spins its wheels. Props to Depp and a game-for-anything cast, including Jackie Earle Haley as a creepy handyman and Alice Cooper as – yikes! – himself, for a diverting ride. But the pleasures of Dark Shadows are frustratingly hit-and-miss. In the end, it all collapses into a spectacularly gorgeous heap.