Dark Shadows marks the eighth collaboration between director Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, and you could say the partnership has been fruitful. They've made some wonderfully original films like Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, and they have made rolling-around-in-it-like-Scrooge-McDuck money.
But the creative marriage has grown less and less creative. These two singularly quirky cinema personalities are stuck in a cycle of revisiting whatever familiar pop-culture character crosses their radar in a given year: Ichabod Crane, Willy Wonka, Sweeney Todd, the Mad Hatter. Now they've turned their attentions to Dark Shadows, the cult-favorite gothic soap opera of 1970s television, and the result is another film that indulges the most unfortunate tendencies of each of them: Burton mistaking "busy" for "inventive," and Depp letting weird vocal mannerisms and elaborate costumes do his acting for him.
Depp plays Barnabas Collins, a vampire and undead man-out-of-time when he's exhumed in 1972, nearly 200 years after he was buried in the Maine woods by the sorceress Angelique (Eva Green). Barnabas finds the once-proud family business, and the family castle, in shabby ruins. He's determined to help his relatives - including bitter heir Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Elizabeth's precocious teenage daughter, Carolyn (ChloÃ Grace Moretz) - return to their former glory, but the still-living Angelique hasn't forgotten about Barnabas yet.
Thus begins an elaborate supernatural melodrama, or maybe a fish-out-of-water period-piece satire, or perhaps a bit of genuine horror. Then again, it could be a wild special-effects-heavy action movie. Indeed, it's every last one of these things, in a combination that rarely succeeds even temporarily at any one of them.
The character moments are perfunctory at best. The gags, built around Barnabas' confusion with his 1970s surroundings, offer a few laughs, but also fall back on easy, groan-worthy targets.
Then there's Depp. He preens regally in his cape and plastered spit-curls, but there's never a moment when it feels like Depp is actually being asked to play a character. He's little more than a delivery system for jokes - and no matter how enthusiastically he pronounces the lines, he can't make them add up to a movie.
By the time Dark Shadows reaches its final 20 minutes, the whole thing has collapsed under the weight of its lack of a point. The climactic confrontation is a clamor of special effects that goes nowhere, the kind of ending that happens when a filmmaker doesn't actually have an ending.
As with many marriages, Burton and Depp may not be good for each other any more.