Ed Wood. Sweeney Todd. Ichabod Crane. The Mad Hatter. The partnership between Tim Burton and his go-to actor is getting stale. Spin the wheel to pick a pop culture oddball, put "Johnny Depp is ..." in front of it, and start building sets. Just as the Adam McKay-Will Ferrell collaborations ran dry of wacky professions, the point of diminishing returns must arrive. And so it has with the drab "Dark Shadows." Never before have they attacked such uncertain material with so little gusto or levity. The film has a terminal case of the blahs.
"Dark Shadows" opens promisingly, downshifts after 30 minutes, and sputters into a meandering, momentum-free mess. Depp plays Barnabas Collins, the brooding bloodsucker who debuted in Dan Curtis' horror-tinged TV soap opera in 1966. An atmospheric prologue sets up his tragic dilemma. The heir of an 18th-century Maine fishing fortune, he rejects the advances of serving girl Angelique (Eva Green). The beauty reveals herself as a witch, kills Barnabas' true love, Josette (Bella Heathcote), transforms him into a vampire and buries him in a padlocked casket.
Unearthed by a backhoe crew in 1972, he finds himself sharing the family mansion with his distant descendants. Here the movie is at its most assured, mining outsider humor from his reactions to an odd new world of paved roadways, electric lights and soft rock. The laughs here come from the way Barnabas putters around the Collins mansion, encountering a troll doll here, a lava lamp there, an Eggo on his breakfast plate, and stifles his startled dismay like a gentleman. He's also funny at rest, hanging upside-down bat-style here and there around the house. Luckily, this is enough to keep us amused.
Regrettably, the film starts flirting with a plot. Reverting to its soap-opera roots, it unreels miles of tedious story line about modern-day Collinsport, where the undead Angelique now heads a rival canning company. The Collins clan's newly arrived nanny is a dead ringer for Barnabas' lost Josette, and the romantic triangle repeats itself. Michelle Pfeiffer channels steely Joan Collins chic as the matriarch of the Collins brood. Jonny Lee Miller, so electric in "Trainspotting," is a chalk outline of a character as her wastrel brother. Helena Bonham Carter takes an honest swing at the part of the family's boozy, pill-popping live-in psychologist, and Chloe Grace Moretz is a sly delight as the family's teen, who has two settings: Surly and stoned.
The script, by "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" novelist Seth Grahame-Smith, is not exactly a triumph of functional design. It feels as if he took all the moving-the-plot-along drudgery of TV soaps as his template. Every scene spent belaboring character conflicts and advancing the story is a scene wasted. The film needs comedic anarchy.
Instead we get production-design bloat and hectic misplaced action. Yes, the Collins manor is magnificently ugly. Sure, the cannery blows up real good when it's time to toss in some 'splosions. Sure, the furniture-smashing love tryst wrestling match between Barnabas and Angelique demolishes a lot of interior decoration.
But all that ingenuity should have gone into devising better scenes for Depp. He successfully walks a tightrope here in scene after scene: as terrible as it is that he fangs a couple dozen innocent victims, he's not unsympathetic. How can you hate someone with such elegant spitcurls?