What to make of poor Barnabas Collins, the protagonist of "Dark Shadows"? Born in England in the mid-1700s, he migrates to the New World with his fishing-magnate family and manages to spurn a lover, Angelique, who turns out to be a witch. She offs his parents, compels his true love, Josette, to take a long walk off a short cliff and curses Barnabas with vampirism before leading a torch-and-rake mob to bury him alive (or at least undead) inside a chain-swaddled coffin in the Maine woods. By the time he's accidentally excavated 200 years later, he's parched and irate, and his family — the only true wealth, his father used to tell him — is in straits, as their fishing empire limps along.
Love, power, wealth, revenge, status — all the elements of a classic soap opera — converge in the "Dark Shadows" universe. This campy, vampy adaptation, directed by Tim Burton, sorts through the remains of the original ABC series that ran for more than 1,200 episodes in the late '60s and early '70s. Even with a very game Johnny Depp playing Barnabas as an anachronistic straight man, this "Dark Shadows" stumbles over the weight of its own ambition. It's too funny to feel quite gothic, too cruel to feel sexy, too cluttered to invite real empathy, even as it reaches for all of the above.
Not that "Dark Shadows" doesn't have its moments. Depp's Barnabas may have a soft spot for his distant relatives, and carry himself with the out-of-time bewilderment of an erudite Encino Man, but he remains, after all, a vampire, forced to sup on blood but gentlemanly enough to apologize to his innocent victims before gorging on their claret. An amorous encounter between him and the equally immortal Angelique (the alluring Eva Green) should go down among the most slapstick vampire sex-scenes ever committed in cinema. Bella Heathcote is cast perfectly as Victoria Winters, the young nanny who is drawn to the Collins family. Burton's wife and favored ingénue Helena Bonham Carter has a nice turn as the pill-swilling psychiatrist who takes a shine to Barnabas' unique properties as a medical specimen.
The doctor and Barnabas eventually get crossways when she gets too curious about his immortality. But who wouldn't — Depp, nearly 50, looks decades younger under a pixie haircut and sunken-eyed makeup, a 200-something-year-old vampire going on 30. You can tell a lot about a movie's intentions by the hue and shade it assigns to blood. In the doctor's phlebotomic experiments, and in Barnabas' sloppy-chinned meals, the blood practically glows as an electric, lusty red that signals the audience not to take it too seriously. That much comes across, even if too little else in "Dark Shadows" does.
In its emotional disarray "Dark Shadows" fits a pattern of recent Burton flicks. Since reprising "Planet of the Apes" in 2001, the director has reheated "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "Sweeney Todd" and "Alice in Wonderland," all with Depp in lead roles. Aside from the genuinely affecting "Big Fish" in 2003, and his own heartfelt animation "Corpse Bride" in 2005, this has been a lost decade for Burton's directorial talents, which have proven too bankable as Hot Topic-grade goth credibility to venture into territory truly bizarre or unsettling. Increasingly his films unspool like paint-by-numbers ventures, with a palette arrayed only in black, silver and purple. At this point a Burton movie that moves audiences to true revulsion, rather than more shrugging acquiescence, would be the only Burton movie worth paying to see.