Tim Burton has always been drawn to material that borders on camp; even his darkest and bloodiest films, such as his big-screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (2007), are laced with broad humor and a kind of juicy relish for excess. So it’s appropriate that Burton would choose to revive the late ’60s/early ’70s Gothic soap Dark Shadows as a horror comedy set in 1972 (the year after the show ended). No longer a straight-forward vampire saga, it’s now a fish-out-of-water tale in which the undead Barnabus Collins (Johnny Depp) rises from the grave to find himself in a world of lava lamps, disco balls, and Bakelite dishes. It’s a variation on Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990), in which Depp played a Frankenstein’s monster transported from haunted castle to pastel suburbia.
That film, like Burton’s other successes (Ed Wood comes to mind) combined off-beat comedy with a strange, elegiac beauty, but his most recent films have largely been flops—you can feel Burton’s imagination working on autopilot. Much of Dark Shadows feels perfunctory, lifeless. Burton’s films have begun to resemble equations: start with source material that’s both whimsical and spooky/weird, add Depp, stick Helena Bonham Carter in a supporting role, mount with some fancifully bizarre sets and costumes, set it and forget it. They have become foregone conclusions in themselves. (Burton is now even raiding his own back catalog: he has “re-animated”—get it?—his early live-action feature Frankenweenie, due out this Halloween.) As anything other than an exercise in retro art direction, Dark Shadows feels tired and obvious, most painfully in its protracted final act, as Barnabus does seemingly endless battle with the vixenish witch (Eva Green) who first cursed his family two centuries before.
That said, the retro art direction is almost good enough to make the movie worth sitting through. Burton somehow puts his finger on the oddly perfect marriage of ’70s style and Gothic flair. Watch the Hammer horror films from the ’60s and early ’70s, for example, and you experience a deliriously wonderful mélange of archly period sets and props and modern bouffant hairstyles, velvet waistcoats and polyester gowns trimmed with antique lace. Burton’s film is tuned in to these kinds of anachronisms, and to ’70s pop culture’s lush vision of the occult. In the opening credits sequence, the doe-eyed, flip-haired Bella Heathcote looks for all the world like a drawing on the cover of a vintage paperback; on the soundtrack we hear The Moody Blues’ sexy, brooding “Nights in White Satin.” Burton’s recreation of what we might term ’70s Gothic is far more accomplished and a lot more fun than any showdown between vampires and witches he attempts to serve up.