ENTERTAINMENT NEWS (CNN) — "Balls. That's how a family shows its power," declares Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins in "Dark Shadows" to the bemused descendants gathered around the dinner table.
In his day -- the 1700s -- throwing a party was a political act. But 200 years later -- in 1972, to be exact -- balls are out of style. Women's lib is in the air, and his movie is loaded with powerful, independent women. The hippies are dropping out. And vampires are an anachronism.
I better admit from the start I never saw Dan Curtis' spooky "Dark Shadows" soap opera, a curio that ran from 1966 to 1971. The belated blockbuster edition arrives courtesy of director Tim Burton, star Depp and "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" scribe Seth Grahame-Smith, a mash-up monster squad possibly more inclined to camp than Curtis was, and certainly more tickled by the nostalgic "modernity" of the Nixon era.
The fruit of their labors is mostly weirdly amusing -- when it's not just plain bemusing -- but hardly the wacky parody the trailers suggest. And it falls well short of satire. The gags are there alright, but so is the soap in roughly equal measure. Always stronger on gothic atmosphere than story, Burton dedicates unwarranted screentime to the Collins' dull fortunes in the fish canning business (I'm not kidding).
More promisingly, he dishes up tortured romance more or less straight -- or as straight as a romantic triangle between an angry witch, a lovelorn vampire and a corpse is ever likely to be -- and smuggles at least a smidgeon of heartfelt emotional baggage into the spectacularly dysfunctional dynamics of the Collins clan.
As we know by now, in Burton's films being a misfit is a mark of distinction. And if Depp's Barnabas is by his own admission an accursed monster with buckets of blood on his hands, he's more or less absolved of moral guilt, redeemed by his loyalty, integrity and commitment to the family.
On top of which, Depp is fun.
He's a vision in monochrome with his pasty complexion, black cape and hair. His elongated fingers weave mesmerizing dainty webs in thin air, and he pounces on each and every syllable of ripe 18th century rhetoric for maximum pomp. But scratch the surface and this turns out to be another arch, hollow turn from an actor who seems to treat his roles like extended party pieces, sniffing out any excuse for vaudeville and hang the consequences.
His Barnabas is the life of the party but impossible to take seriously as a tormented soul. Despite his protestations, there is precious little heat between him and his beloved, Victoria (an intriguingly wan Bella Heathcote).
If you can't join him, beat him: that seems to be Eva Green's game, effectively out-vamping Depp as Barnabas' spurned lover and nemesis, brittle, randy sorceress Angelique. Also preening for attention but given rather less to play is Michelle Pfeiffer -- who must have thought she was back in Eastwick -- as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, the de facto head of the family, Helen Bonham Carter Burton as dypso head-doctor Julia Hoffman and Chloe Grace Moretz as Elizabeth's very adolescent daughter Caroline. Then there is Alice Cooper as plain old Alice Cooper.
They're all troupers, but step back a moment, you might feel a bit queasy about a picture that shrugs off multiple murders and vilifies an abused housemaid who rebels against the old European social hierarchies.
Unfortunately, Burton and Depp's ironic, detached treatment invites just that kind of idle reflection. The architecture looks grand, but the foundations are shaky.