Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are snuggled warmly in their comfort zone in the chilly horror-comedy "Dark Shadows," their eighth collaboration as director and star, respectively, and their weakest by far.
You don't need to know a thing about the late-'60s "Dark Shadows" TV series that provides the inspiration. Tonally, thematically, visually, you've seen this movie before, with its oddball characters, skies in varying shades of gray and a foreboding sense of gothic mystery. No one gets challenged here; no one gets pushed.
It's actually a wonder that Depp hasn't played a vampire before; still, his long-undead Barnabas Collins, who's been buried alive for nearly two centuries and suddenly finds himself back in his insular Maine hometown in 1972, fits squarely within his well-honed on-screen persona. He thinks he's quite the charmer, but he's actually a bit awkward, and that contradiction provides the main source of humor.
Or at least, it's supposed to.
The script from Seth Grahame-Smith ("Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter") allows its family full of weirdos to shine intermittently but they rarely interact with each other; each functions in his or her own self-consciously quirky bubble. Too often, "Dark Shadows" is crammed with hacky, obvious, fish-out-of-water gags, as Barnabas tries to make sense of this strange new world. He struggles to understand modern romance as he courts the family's delicate, wide-eyed nanny and hopes to fit in by smoking pot with the local hippies. And how is this tiny Karen Carpenter person singing to him from inside the television set? Ho ho!
At the same time, "Dark Shadows" feels too languid, bogged down as it is with an obsessive eye for period costumes (the work of Colleen Atwood) and interior details rather than offering anything resembling an engaging story. And by the time Burton finally puts his patented flair for visual effects to its best use, in a climactic showdown between Barnabas and the witch who cursed him (the va-va-voomy Eva Green), it's too late.
A little background here: As a child, Barnabas and his wealthy family sailed from England in 1750 and founded the fishing village of Collinsport in coastal Maine. They spent 15 years building the grand Collinwood Manor, where a maid named Angelique (Green) loved Barnabas passionately, but he never returned her affections. Because she felt scorned - and happened to be a witch - she turned him into a vampire, chained him up and stuck him in a coffin in the ground. Nearly 200 years later, a construction crew unearths him and sets him free.
When he stumbles back to his once-stately home, he finds it falling apart, along with the fishing empire that has been conquered by a competitor named Angel (Green, again). The few family members who remain are random and reclusive: matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), the only one who knows his true identity; her weasel of a brother, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller); her rebellious teen daughter, Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz); and Roger's 10-year-old son David (Gully McGrath), who sees dead people. There's also David's perpetually drunk psychiatrist, Dr. Julia Hoffman (Burton regular Helena Bonham Carter); the home's beleaguered caretaker, Willie (Jackie Earle Haley); and the new governess, Victoria (Bella Heathcote), who bears a striking resemblance to Barnabas' long-ago love and has a few secrets of her own.
That's a lot of exposition, huh? And the film itself takes awhile to get going as it establishes all those characters and back stories. Once there, it seems to have nowhere to go - out of the shadows or into the light, it doesn't really matter either way.
"Dark Shadows," a Warner Bros. Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking. Running time: 116 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.