By MANOHLA DARGIS
Of all the morbid beauties in Tim Burton’s work, the spooky goth girls and deathly pale boys, none wear their ghoulishness as lightly or winningly as Johnny Depp. And what a bewitching corpse he makes in “Dark Shadows,” Mr. Burton’s most pleasurable film in years. As Barnabas Collins, the scion of a wealthy family turned unwilling vampire, Mr. Depp has a face as white as chalk and long-fingered hands that skim the air like skittering spiders. After 200 years of entombment, Barnabas awakes in 1972 and, like a latter-day Rip van Winkle, only thirstier, drinks in a world populated by monsters, living and dead, and lovingly adorned with Mr. Burton’s signature kinks. Mr. Burton’s exquisite detail work, his playfulness and macabre wit are justification enough for such an ephemeral enterprise, which fondly revisits the creaky, supernatural-themed American daytime soap that ran from 1966 to 1971.
Created by Dan Curtis, whose other creep shows included “Kolchak: The Night Stalker,” “Dark Shadows” became a cult favorite when it introduced Barnabas (Jonathan Frid, who died last month), a vampire hero drawn along far more romantic lines than Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Mr. Burton’s movie, written by Seth Grahame-Smith (author of satirical novels like “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”), riffs on the Barnabas origin story plucked from the soap and “House of Dark Shadows,” one of two films the show spawned.
In voice-over, Barnabas economically details the Collins family history in once-upon-a-time fashion, from its rise to its fall and including some disastrous lord-of-the-manor grappling with a maid, Angelique (the French actress Eva Green, frisky, funny and excellent), who paws at Barnabas’s body while Josette (Bella Heathcote, a typical Burton Kewpie doll and a recent Australian import) runs off with his heart. Three’s a crowd and Angelique is a witch, so after a little boil, toil and trouble, she casts a spell that leaves Josette dead and Barnabas bereft, fanged and weeping sanguineous tears. In typical horror fashion, a mob descends on him, leading to his timeout in a deep grave until he’s disinterred in the 1970s, whereupon Mr. Burton cues the Carpenters and happily cuts loose. Barnabas’s liberation does the same for Mr. Depp’s performance, and it’s delightful to watch how the actor handles the vampire’s readjustment to the world of the living, which, after he has thrown back some invigorating human Slurpees and faced down a “demon” (a car), he does with both lofty entitlement and abject bewilderment. Barnabas has the good looks of a vampire lover, but the character’s wide-eyed, somewhat baffled manner, in consort with his mysterious powers, means he mostly comes across like a visitor from another planet, more E. T. than Christopher Lee.
Later, hiding from the sun under dark glasses, a fedora and an umbrella — Stoker’s creation moves around in daylight, too, so this isn’t as revisionist as it may seem — Barnabas also suggests the later-life Michael Jackson. Like Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, the most memorable characters in Mr. Burton and Mr. Depp’s previous seven films together, Barnabas is at once recognizably human and inescapably different from the people around him. Alienation runs in his blood, literally. This sense of detachment remains even after he returns to the now-dilapidated Collins family manse, where, amid the picturesque decay and scattered children’s toys — a nice suburban touch — he meets his living descendants, including the matriarch, Elizabeth (a wonderful Michelle Pfeiffer, loopy and steely); her dissolute brother, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller); her teenage daughter, Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz); and Roger’s son, David (Gully McGrath), whose dark looks recall the evil tot in the 1976 horror flick “The Omen.” Barnabas, of course, fits right in with this freak show, even while remaining his own (dead) man.
The movie is lightly ornamented with cinematic allusions. At one point David’s shrink, Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), replicates the signature Shelley Winters image from “The Night of the Hunter,” while the caretaker, Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley), wields an ax that looks borrowed from Jack Nicholson in “The Shining.” Such sampling never becomes distracting and, with the terrific period songs (Curtis Mayfield, T. Rex, Iggy and the Stooges), gives “Dark Shadows” the feel of a pop-cultural archaeological dig. That makes sense given that Mr. Burton’s film resurrects an old television show that was partly inspired by the 1950s and ’60s vampire flicks produced by the British studio Hammer, which were in turn influenced by decades of fang-ster gore and glory. There is also something of a story, mostly involving Barnabas’s true love, if anyone’s interested, though traditional storytelling has never been Mr. Burton’s specialty or perhaps interest. What counts in his work is the telling, not the tale. He isn’t big on narrative logic, coherence and thrust — see “Mars Attacks!,” an exuberant free-for-all — focusing instead on his imagery, an emphasis that can either bore you to tears, as in his “Alice in Wonderland,” or, as in “Dark Shadows,” pleasantly slow everything down, allowing you to luxuriate in his embroidery and doodling, the paintings on the walls, the gloom in the halls.
Although Mr. Burton’s talents can make him seem more like a production designer than a director, in his strongest films his visual style can be thrillingly expressive. “Dark Shadows” isn’t among Mr. Burton’s most richly realized works, but it’s very enjoyable, visually sumptuous and, despite its lugubrious source material and a sporadic tremor of violence, surprisingly effervescent. There has often been something moribund about Mr. Burton’s period efforts, and it may be that he tends to be more at ease, feels aesthetically freer, when he’s having fun with pop culture (his inert redo of “Planet of the Apes” excepted) than adapting high-culture classics. And while there may not be any deeper resonance lurking in his “Dark Shadows” — the show first surfaced in the middle of the Vietnam War, when real horror was playing out daily in the news — Mr. Burton’s gift for deviant beauty and laughter has its own liberating power. “Dark Shadows” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Some vampire violence and demonic sex.