You know you’re in good hands almost from the start. After the long, lugubrious opening sequence set in 18th-century Collinsport has established the ghastly back story of Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) and the curse that has rendered him a bloodsucking creature of the night, “Dark Shadows” whisks us forward to the ultra-modern year of . . . 1972. A speeding train cuts through the Maine woods in a swooping aerial shot. Aboard the train is a pretty young woman (Bella Heathcote) with saucer eyes and a pageboy flip. The colors are soft, almost washed out — the palette of a low-budget Hammer horror film from 4½ decades ago. On the soundtrack, the lonely strum of the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” erupts like a slow-motion bloom.
Tim Burton has got his groove back.
“Dark Shadows” doesn’t pretend to be anything more than an entertainment, but it recaptures the experience of watching the Gothic daytime soap opera (originally aired on ABC from 1966 to 1971) with rapturous comic bliss. The pleasure of the show was that it was cut-rate junk that still gave you the willies; if you caught it in the afternoons, after school when you should have been doing homework, you were torn between laughter and pulling a blanket over your head. “Dark Shadows” combined the baroque twists of classic soaps with monster-movie music and a leading man (played by Jonathan Frid) who was a pasty, spectral turn-on. It was as if Nosferatu had stumbled into “The Days of Our Lives.”
Burton, Depp, and writers John August and Seth Grahame-Smith both send up the original show and honor the cheesy doom-mongering that made it so much fun. Imprisoned in a coffin for 200 years by Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), the servant girl he seduced without knowing she was a witch, Barnabas returns to 20th-century Collinsport ready to reclaim his dynastic greatness. To his shock, the family manse, Collinswood, is a wreck and the family itself even more so.
Matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer, regally ridiculous) holds court over a dissolute clan of Bronte-esque castoffs: surly teen daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz in full-on jailbait mode), epicene brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), Roger’s mournful young son David (Gulliver McGrath), and boozy family shrink Dr. Julia Hoffman (Burton mainstay and main squeeze Helena Bonham Carter). Jackie Earle Haley as the caretaker prowls the grounds like a seedy, sawed-off Lurch.
The movie works a lot of comic mileage out of Barnabas’s collisions with the modern world and its marvels. A scene where he sees Karen Carpenter singing “Top of the World” on TV and rips the back off the box shrieking “Reveal yourself, tiny sorceress!” is one of many felicities. “Dark Shadows” gets laughs even from its product placement: A well-known fast-food franchise is the cause for much confusion on the hero’s part early on.
Barnabas wants to revive the Collins glory by reopening the fish-canning factory that was the family’s early source of wealth, but he’s blocked by Angelique, eternally young, forever evil, and CEO of the competition. (The French Green gives a rabidly amusing impersonation of an all-American vamp). She’s also still in love with Barnabas, who hasn’t quite forgiven her for sending his true love Josette (Heathcote again) over a cliff in that opening sequence. “Dark Shadows” has great fun with the heavy-breathing passions of both Gothic fiction and daytime soaps; an antic sex scene between witch and vampire has the two making love up the walls and across the ceiling before plummeting into bad-idea regrets on the sofa.
That scene doesn’t even make sense, but you may not care. After the cluttered pointlessness of “Alice in Wonderland” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” many of us had given up on Burton, but this project lets him tap into his morbid playfulness with relish. (In a way, the original show was a Burton vehicle decades ahead of schedule.) The director’s own curse is that his knack for visual invention has always been shadowed by hapless storytelling — has he made a film that has kept it together all the way through? (Yes: “Edward Scissorhands” and “Ed Wood.” Any others?)
But TV’s “Dark Shadows” was incoherent to start with, a daily dose of eldritch fantasy with no beginning, middle, or end. The movie has just enough structure to tide us over — for the most part; the last half-hour is a traffic jam of silly ideas like a werewolf out of nowhere — but it’s the atmosphere and the riffs that matter. Is Victoria, the new governess, a reincarnation of Barnabas’s adored Josette or her ghost’s flesh-and-blood pupil? I’m not sure even Burton knows. What he responds to is the delicate purity of Heathcote in the camera’s trembling close-ups, and so do we. (With her wide, unblinking eyes, the actress could be the director’s Corpse Bride sprung to life.)
The best jokes lie in the gulf between the hero’s 18th-century grandiloquence — he’s Rochester with an overbite — and the polyester ’70s setting. Everything conspires against poor Barnabas: His secret antechamber now houses Elizabeth’s macramé; the parlor organ now comes with a thump-chucka-thump rhythm box. When Carolyn recommends a rock star to play at a Collinswood ball, the host is startled to learn that Alice Cooper isn’t a woman. Depp has the most fun he’s had with a role outside of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, and he luxuriates in the character’s hambone dialogue. This new world baffles him with its lava lamps and bluntness, its lack of dark poetry. Yes, Barnabas kills people and drinks their blood, but at least he has manners.
“Dark Shadows” weighs a ton but is surprisingly fast on its feet, and there are flashes of the whackadoo genius that animated early films such as “Beetlejuice,” made before Burton was an industry and an institution. The new movie means exactly nothing and it should evaporate long before it does, but its maker is re-energized by all the old horror stories he loves for their cheapness and dread. Why shouldn’t he stride into Collinswood with such flair? He’s home.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.