The 1960s cult soap opera Dark Shadows was in the ratings crapper for about a year — until it morphed into a story about the moody vampire Barnabas Collins and a gallery of other supernaturals in his eponymous town of Collinsport, Maine. This innovative choice extended its life for four years and two feature films — not really all that great for a vampire, when you think about it.
Now it's back, with Johnny Depp as the new incarnation of Barnabas — only this time, with (naturally) an oddball sense of humor, and directed by Depp's liege, Tim Burton, the maestro of weirdness. It's a movie that you really have to want to see, and I can't imagine that fanatics of the original will embrace this revivification. Then again, we're talking about people infatuated with an outlandish old vampire soap.
The back story is a bit different than the original: In this version, Barnabas was "made" by the spell of a vengeful witch, and not by a vampire bat summoned by the witch. Unleashed after 200 years in a coffin, he resumes his status as head of household in the family mansion, where his kin and their lodgers — played by Michelle Pfeiffer, Jonny Lee Miller, Helena Bonham Carter, Jackie Earle Haley and others — slowly come to learn what he is. The witch (Eva Green) who created him is still around, gorgeous as ever, and they still hate each other.
What Burton's film lacks in imagination it doesn't make up for with its empty creativity. His ghouls are all horribly familiar, and the 1972 setting allows him to joke in two directions: As modernism baffles Barnabas, the blasts at the past allow us to feel hip and superior. These are points 19 and 20, respectively, in Susan Sontag's seminal essay "Notes on Camp," which states, "Intending to be campy is always harmful." Enter Alice Cooper as himself.
The movie's themes are the Burton/Depp standards: Difference is good (even if Mr. Different kills innocent people), and the Misunderstood just want to be loved. I'll drink (blood) to that. At times amusing, and at other times dull, it's enjoyably performed by Depp, whom I admire for taking his eccentric performances so seriously. Soap operas need to go on and on, and that tends to strain the artists who create them. In that regard, Burton's revival does in two hours what it took five years to do the first time around.