Nobody tells the story of an outsider quite like director Tim Burton. And nobody plays that outsider with quirky, dark humor quite like Johnny Depp.
With tongue inserted firmly in cheek — “Twilight” moviemakers, take note — that story can be much more entertaining precisely because it doesn't take itself so deadly serious.
“Dark Shadows,” the latest Burton-Depp project, revisits the gothic world of the 1966-71 television soap opera that starred Jonathan Frid as vampire Barnabas Collins. They've turned out a movie that is both visually arresting and entertaining in the same way as the Addams Family — a sort of macabre light, but with a dry wit.
In 1772, Barnabas, son of a wealthy seafood merchant in Collinsport, Maine, spurns an ardent lover named Angelique (Eva Green) in favor of Josette (Bella Heathcote).
Unfortunately, Angelique is a witch. To punish Barnabas, she murders his parents, turns him into a vampire and gets the townspeople to bury him alive after bodies with neck punctures start turning up.
Two centuries later, a construction crew unwittingly uncovers the coffin and frees Barnabas (“Sorry, but you have no idea how thirsty I am,” he deadpans in midbite).
He's sad to discover his beloved Collinwood Manor has fallen on hard times. The family business has been squeezed out by rival Angelbay Seafood, run by none other than Angelique.
The movie gets plenty of laughs out of contrasting Barnabas' 1772 mindset and class-conscious formality against the rather loose social construct of 1972 America.
Depp makes it a lively journey as Barnabas discovers the peculiarities of 20th century life, such as television, pop music (fun soundtrack), lava lamps, McDonalds (he mistakes the golden arches for a sign of Mephistopheles) and automobiles.
The Collins family matriarch, dour widow Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), keeps Barnabas' blood-sucking secret as he begins to reverse the family's fortunes under the wide-eyed watch of her ne'er-do-well brother (Jonny Lee Miller), her rebellious teen daughter (Chloe Grace Moretz), a slightly creepy nephew (Gulliver McGrath) and the household staff.
The new governess, strangely drawn to Barnabas and plagued by ghosts, is a dead ringer for Josette. The boozy family shrink (Helena Bonham Carter) plays wily head games with Barnabas. The hypnotized caretaker (Jackie Earle Haley) serves loyally.
And Angelique still has the hots for Barnabas. A hilarious, overwrought seduction scene is followed by a rather nasty all-out war, all of which calls for lots of fun digital effects.
Depp is brilliant at playing the straight-faced funnyman, and his Barnabas could be a slightly classier first cousin to Jack Sparrow. Immersed in this arch character, Depp is mesmerizing every moment he's onscreen.
Green goes for broke as lusty schemer Angelique, and Bonham Carter is also a kick. It's great to see Pfeiffer again, but you wish she had at least one moment to slay us with that killer smile of hers.
Everybody else is just filling time until the bit of brilliance from Depp, which is never far away and more than enough to keep this trifle alive.
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